Female MPs photographed outside Parliament in May to campaign for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria. Photo: Getty
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Female MPs in the press: slated or ignored

A new study hints at sexism in the press.

Female politicians are presented more negatively in the press than their male counterparts, and receive less coverage overall, a recent academic study has revealed.

The investigation analysed newspaper reports covering female MPs, using samples from the election years 1992, 2002 and 2012. The researchers dug through archives of papers to both the left and right of the political spectrum, including the Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Mirror.

It transpired that although all politicians receive negative coverage, female politicians were more likely to be presented in a dim light.

In 2012, Conservative women were twice as likely as their male counterparts to receive bad press.

Labour women were four times more likely to be slammed in the press than their male colleagues; in their 2012 sample of press cuttings, the researchers found no positive coverage of female Labour politicians at all.

Female Liberal Democrats were generally ignored by the newspapers altogether that year.

The research also identified a regressive trend for media representation for female politicians of all political stripes.

Since 1992 there has been a decline in the amount of news coverage women MPs receive relative to their proportional numbers in Parliament. By 2012 they were being quoted less in the press too.

The pair conducting the research, Deidre O’Neill, a journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, and Dr Heather Savigny, a lecturer in politics at Bournemouth University’s Media School, also examined why female politicians receive worse coverage.

They argued that the representation of female politicians deviates from a "male norm", the pervasive nation that men are assumed to stand for the whole population.

The duo called for print journalists to be conscious of including women in media coverage and reflect on how they present women. They recommended the creation of a media monitoring group, comprising politicians, media representatives and academics.

Savigny said: “We are not hearing female politicians’ voices as often as we might expect. This is not good news for our press or the state of our politics.  This press rep­resentation of women that sometimes serves to suggest politics is a ‘man’s game’, where women are regarded as the aberrant, exception to the rule, can alienate women representatives and likely future candidates."

She added that the invidious trend affects the democratic process, whereby women voters feel unrepresented in Parliament and turn away from political engagement."

O'Neill added: "Within society, many factors already militate against women entering public life. The regressive trends highlighted by our findings, taken in context with other media developments, such as the rise of internet trolls churning out appalling misogynist abuse and rape and death threats to women who have aired views or campaigned publicly creates a climate that makes it more difficult for women and which can put competent women off taking public office."

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser