Women missing voices on radio talk shows

But why only ask the woman? Is it because that it is assumed that women do not have an interest in politics? Not a very logical response, if one considers that the Deputy President of the country is a woman and that women make up 43 percent of the country’s cabinet. Or is it that because the men in the male dominated media are still of the opinion that women can only talk about fashion and beauty products? What ever the reason, assumptions about women as audiences contribute to the low participation of women in radio talk shows as callers. Radio as a news medium has significant reach into both rural and urban areas that have little other media presence. The medium has the potential to open avenues to public participation for marginalised groups of people by providing a space in which they can have their voices heard. Radio talk shows are important for a number of reasons, but possibly the most important is to encourage citizen participation which is a cornerstone of democracy. Talk shows provide a forum for ordinary citizens to voice their concerns, opinions and complaints, to question key decision-makers and hold them to account, in this way empowering people to participate in democratic life. Despite this, the findings of a monitoring exercise conducted in four Southern African countries – Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Lesotho – showed that women are under represented in all areas of radio talk shows, as hosts, guests and callers. Women constituted only a quarter of all callers to the radio talk shows monitored. So, why, when women constitute over half of the population and rely in many cases on radio as their main source of news, are producers and hosts not doing more to encourage women to participate on radio talk shows? What the monitoring showed was that stereotypes about women are often reinforced in talk shows and are seldom challenged by hosts or guests. Although presenters tried to be fair, women guests and callers were sometimes addressed in patronising and demeaning ways. For example in Lesotho during a discussion with two business women who ran catering businesses the host played a song about how men in the country love it when their wives cook delicious food. When asked, some producers said that they could not find women to be on the shows and one host said the he did not lose sleep over the fact that men predominated on talk shows. In contrast other presenters voiced their concern regarding the lower participation levels of women but wondered what they could do to change it. The reasons for the generally low participation by women in radio talk shows are complex and require further investigation. Is it because “phones are regarded as the property of the man within the home” as was posed by one Zimbabwean host or because of their socialisation and the fact that women are “generally afraid to express themselves in public”? Is it because hosts fail to challenge opinions and allow stereotypes to be perpetuated by guests and callers alike or because women are questioned about their ability to give an opinion on certain topics and men are not? In South Africa, the two shows hosted by women had the highest proportion of women callers. However, having more women guests did not seem to change the extent to which women called in as the show with the greatest gender balance with regard to guests also had the lowest proportion of women callers. Topics discussed could also have a bearing on women’s participation. In South Africa, for example, participation by women increased visibly in a show normally dominated by male callers when the topic switched from current affairs to health and education. But while women may feel more comfortable or are more interested in discussing issues such as health and education this should not preclude them from tackling political and current affairs issues. The challenge for talk show hosts is that they should be impartial facilitators who are able to educate, inform and entertain. Their responsibility should be to change mindsets and attitudes and ensure that the voices, opinions and experiences of the whole population are heard. The monitoring study has shown that there is a glaring gap in women’s voices on radio talk shows as well as a lack in critical comment from women experts. This finding concurs with the recent Global Media Monitoring Project which found that globally women still only constitute a small portion (21%) of news sources, this figure decreases to 19% in Southern Africa. Women are also less likely to be approached as news sources in their professional capacity than in their personal capacity. The study proposes a range of measures to achieve greater gender balance and sensitivity in radio talk shows. These include: more in-depth, gender disaggregated audience research; a greater diversity of topics and in particular more attention to topics that are of direct concern to women; a conscious effort to achieve gender balance in the selection of hosts and guests (where stations have the most control); gender awareness training for hosts; as well as gender and media literacy training for the public, especially women. If we are to be truly democratic society it is essential that the voices of the entire nation are heard. Women can and should be talking about politics and business and men about health and fashion. Gender balance in debates ensures that there is a wider range of views and opinions because women and men often see things in different ways. l Susan Tolmay is a researcher and Publications Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

March 2006
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