Windows of opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

Windows of Opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

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Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

by Claire Turner, PhD candidate at the University of Leeds.

I started my PhD at the University of Leeds in the autumn term of 2019. As a new postgraduate researcher, I had not yet attended any conferences, nor had I presented my research to anyone outside of my institution. In April this year, I would have been presenting my first conference paper to an audience of early modern scholars at the University of York. My paper – which was a combination of my MA dissertation and PhD research – would have explored the relationships between the plague, smell, sound, and unstable boundaries in seventeenth-century London. Unfortunately, my presentation has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, an event I was due to co-organise with fellow postgraduate researchers has also been pushed back for the foreseeable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unintentionally brought my research to the fore. My thesis focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England. I aim to discover how the five core senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch) interacted with each other to forge and alter perceptions and experiences of epidemic disease. Recent research into the symptoms of COVID-19 has revealed that the virus can potentially reduce our ability to taste and smell. This novel research resonates with my PhD project, which will encourage historians to pay more attention to the absence of sensory experiences during times of crisis.

The paper I was due to give in York next month is also particularly similar to the situation we now find ourselves in. My paper, entitled ‘Sensing the Plague: Hearing and Smelling Disease in Seventeenth-Century London’, argues that foul smells and sounds created during plague outbreaks caused spatial boundaries to be perceived as unstable. A striking amount of the material I cover in my paper refers to the significance of doorways and windows as unstable boundaries through which people communicated diseases as well as conversations. In 2020, we once again find ourselves resorting to windows and doorways to hold conversations with our families, neighbours, and postal services. On Thursday 26th March, thousands of people clapped out of their windows to show their appreciation for the tireless efforts made by NHS staff during the crisis. This representation of the window as a place of gratitude, hope, and recovery has also been explored in recent research on the symbolic role of windows in hospitals. Victoria Bates, in her research on hospitals and the senses, argued that the modern-day hospital window represents recovery through its natural light and vibrant colours.

As a history student, I am required to visit several archives and libraries across the country. These research trips act as a valuable way of networking by inviting archivists, librarians, and other PhD researchers to explore various archive repositories and to discuss ideas and findings together. Due to government advice to isolate at home, followed by subsequent library closures, I am unable to visit archives to conduct my research or network with others.

While working from home, I have found myself spending more time exploring the possibilities of using social media to publicise historical research. In doing so, I have observed that more and more of my academic connections are promoting their research in the form of Twitter ‘threads’ or virtual Twitter conferences. Other accounts are also setting up Twitter group chats and Discord chats for specific research areas — medical historians, humanities scholars, and many other science-based disciplines. My research, which encompasses early modern, medical, sensory, and social history, does not fit within one circle of expertise. I wanted to use my self-isolation to find a way to network with people from across various circles and share my research as widely as possible.

In mid-March, I decided to utilise my Twitter account in an attempt to network via social media. The tweet (which can be found here) briefly explained my lack of experience with networking alongside a short profile of my research. I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that many new PhD students will be unable to network or share their research in person for the entire first year of their degree. 

The response to my tweet was overwhelming. So far, the tweet has been seen by just under 700,000 people and has almost 40,000 engagements (i.e. people clicking on my Twitter profile, sharing the tweet, or replying to the tweet). These statistics alone demonstrate the power of social media as a platform for sharing information. I was particularly interested to note that a high proportion of people sharing my tweet were from outside my discipline. Alongside academics working in the more familiar fields of history and English literature, my tweet was shared by researchers from disciplines including philosophy, psychology, medicine, and neuroscience. From looking at the disciplines and departments from which people shared my tweet, I have learned about the possibility of forging connections with academics in fields particularly different from my own.

As well as sharing the tweet, a lot of people used the tweet to introduce their own research. A high number of these people were PhD students or Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Over time, the number of people sharing the replies to my initial tweet also grew. It is particularly rewarding to know that my tweet has allowed other people in a similar situation to my own to network and share their research with an online audience.

Networking online has opened my eyes to the many avenues available for not only historians, but other professionals to use Twitter for networking, disseminating research, and communicating with a broad audience during the COVID-19 crisis. Before I posted my tweet, I was only vaguely aware of the usefulness of video communication software such as Zoom and Skype. I had assumed such software was only used for the likes of seminars, lectures, and one-on-one meetings. However, networking on Twitter has introduced me to numerous other avenues for communicating on these and other websites — online reading groups, work-in-progress sessions, virtual conferences, learning workshops, and general support networks.

On a more selfish level, tweeting about my lack of networking experience has helped me appreciate the value, significance, and relevance of my research within the current global climate. I received an impressive number of responses to my tweet querying if I knew that my research would become so relevant and important. Inspired by what I have learned from my experience networking online, I decided to create an informal online support network to provide a window of hope and reassurance to postgraduate students during the current pandemic. The Discord chat is open to any postgraduate student (MA, MSc, MRes, PHD, etc.) wanting to join an open discussion about academia, research, mental health, and life outside university. I hope that my experience of networking online will encourage others to share their own work, forge lasting connections with researchers from a variety of fields, and explore the potential for their research to reach far and wide.

The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

What She Means to Me: On Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Candidacy

by Anne Kauth.

The Patriarchy, every day

I refrain from blurting out the P word in my everyday life: for fear of being written off as a nasty feminist. For fear that you may stop reading, may stop listening. But any story about what she means to me must include mention of it. The Patriarchy is to us women as water is to fish: a system of external domination of which most of us spend our lives blithely unaware, even though we are constantly swimming against its undertow, or else trying to ignore it because that chronic awareness is so painfully debilitating once we begin to recognize it in every aspect of our daily lives.

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Anne (r) meets Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Secretary of State, in the U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012.

Who am I to talk about the Patriarchy, though? I’m a child of the nineties. I’m American, white, privileged, educated, cis-gendered, gainfully employed, and have a supportive network of mentors and advocates. I grew up with Girl Power and Sally Ride and Jane Goodall and Susan Rice and Madeleine Albright. Not only did I leave my native Minnesota for college on the East Coast, I was an athlete, a campus leader, I traveled nonstop, dated whomever I wanted, had killer internships, and knew I would be employed from the moment I graduated in a job that was engaging, well-compensated, and progressively responsible. I have had fabulous bosses, managers, and colleagues. I have had respectful, empowering, enlightened romantic partners. I have made a life for myself in nine cities on three continents. And here I am in San Francisco in my late 20s, enjoying a period of life that for women the world over is truly unprecedented. I do not yet have a family of my own, I’m not yet married, but I’m no longer living with the family that raised me. I’m living independently as a young professional with the support, love, and pride of my family, friends, and community. This is a chapter that my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers never experienced, and one that I endeavor to take advantage of to the fullest.

And yet the conversation comes up again and again, over brunch with friends who are similarly educated, gainfully employed, freely dating, living full lives in global hubs. That feeling. That question. Am I just imagining this uncomfortable power dynamic with the guy at work? Am I really overreacting to this imbalance in my relationship? Was that uncomfortable interaction with the stranger at the airport harmless? Is there anything to complain about, really, when for decades it was so much worse? When for women in most other parts of the world– and for many in our country who do not have the privileges, security and agency that my peers have– it is still so much worse?

The Patriarchy and the 2016 presidential campaign

Then the 2016 presidential campaign gained momentum, overtook the national consciousness. And as frustrating, embarrassing, terrifying as it is, it also has provided us with a platform to discuss the Patriarchy in a way that won’t, that can’t, be written off. Michelle Obama made the speech of the year in New Hampshire on October 13th, and it hit home in a way that has women of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, talking about experiences with harassment, abuse, and assault, sometimes for the first time.

“We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are, in 2016, and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.

Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day’s headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.”

It is not normal. It is not politics as usual.

This is the election of our time, mostly for reasons that mar the face of the American political landscape, save for one. 

What she means to me

Her. Our candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. A female nominee for president representing one of the major political parties for the first time in history. A candidate who is, as the sitting President remarked, the most qualified candidate ever for the highest office in the land. She’s ours. She is us. It was her voice that was finally heard when she confirmed that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. And she has contended with what every woman in America breaking through personal and professional barriers has had to confront.

She is vilified for being inauthentic, but women who know her and know American politics also know that she has been misunderstood because she has spent so much time and energy responding to every negative experience any one of us has had thrown our way in the workplace, in our relationships, in our daily lives. She, however, has done all that in parallel with, and within the confines of, the rise of the 24 hour news cycle. Having her appearance, her accent, her cookie baking skills, her motherhood, her energy, her warmth or lack thereof, her stamina, her unacceptable pattern of continually asking for a promotion by running for office continually mocked, questioned, and denigrated by a male-dominated opposition punditry.

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Anne (r) and Secretary Clinton, U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012

How we could ever know the “real her” is unfathomable under these conditions. What we do know is that she has spent all four challenging, painful, and still triumphant decades of her professional life as a tireless public servant. I won’t rattle off her resume again here, but do love restating that she is the most-traveled Secretary of State in history: she visited 112 countries during her four-year tenure, traversing 956,733 miles — enough to span the globe more than 38 times. And it is she whom I have looked up to for many years as the ultimate example of leadership.

I take nothing for granted one week from election day in America. I can’t tell you what will happen for sure, sadly, not even Nate Silver can. What I can tell you is that while I have never been more concerned about the state of American politics, I also have never been more hopeful about the possibilities for American women who collectively are owning their experiences with the Patriarchy and naming them for what they are– the most essential step to bring about change.

So, thank you Hillary. I am with you. Here’s to November 9th.

With thanks to Joanna Pinto-Coelho, Jules Shell, Gunnar Kauth, and Antonia Kerle

A note on the WomenAreBoring Blog:

Women Are Boring is dedicated to disseminating interesting research and writing by interesting women.  As with all things worth doing, we are aware that research and opinion is debatable and worthy of contestation. This is something we encourage. As such, the opinions and views shared are those of each individual article’s author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Women Are Boring team.

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]

 

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The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?

 

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Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.

 

 

Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.

 

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Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.

 

Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.

 

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Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]

 

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[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc.

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

The Media Gender Gap…and what to do about it.

by Grace McDermottAAEAAQAAAAAAAAWSAAAAJDg3ZjU3ZTU4LTlkMzEtNDJmYi04NDI5LWViMGQ0NzgzYmEzNg

“ The news is still, by and large, made by men for men. Research from the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), based on 114 countries and released today, shows that only 24 per cent of persons seen, heard or read about in the media are women. In online news reports the figure is almost the same, at 26 per cent. The findings amount to “a severe disparity between the representation of women and men in news media.”

– The Independent, November 23,2015*

When it comes to discussing issues of inequality people get uncomfortable. The good news is, I am not here to talk about whether or not inequality exists, the numbers show that. Instead, I want to talk about what we can do to fix it.

I was a participating researcher on the Irish team of this year’s Global Media Monitoring Report, and can honestly say the experience changed my understanding of the news. Though I had studied representation and news cycles in the past, as I poured over this particular data I was surprised.  Digging through headline after headline, I was astounded to find virtually no stories about, or even authored by, women.  The few stories I did find were for the most part, sitting in the gossip column. Certainly there were women who had stories to tell, and moreover, other women who wanted to tell those stories. But, where were were they?

The Media Gender Gap is a pervasive and widespread issue impacting female media professionals, the industry, and the wider public alike. Though the seldom-discussed inequality of female representation in the media, and by the media, is a large systemic issue there are simple steps we can all take to work towards a fairer industry, and more equal-society. Starting now.

By the end of this piece you will:

  1. Have a better understanding of the Media Gender Gap and your role within it.
  2. A simple, practical, and free step you can take everyday to help end media inequality.

 

The Findings:

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is a major international research initiative that has been running since the late 1990’s. The project focuses on tracking and analysing the representation of women in the media and is widely cited by the likes of the United Nations, among others. This year’s report unfortunately, uncovered a similar pattern to years past. The results prove gender equality in news stories or in media professions remains a serious and largely unchanging issue.

Although women make up about 50% of the general worldwide population, only 24% of the persons heard, read about or seen in news media are women. – GMMP

Among other staggering statistics the GMMP’s overriding findings illustrated that women are largely invisible in not only our news, but our newsrooms. 

Only 37% of news media stories are reported on by women, globally.- GMMP

Even in the would-be “progressive” nations of  Ireland/ Scotland/ England/Wales (the segment of the report I worked on), representation of women in the newsroom was disproportionately low. As only 32% of all news stories in the UK, Ireland-sample were written, or spoken by women.

How does the gap happen? 

The question of “how” inequality happens is quite possibly the most complex and simultaneously important one. Unfortunately, the answer is multifaceted, non-definite, and constantly debated.

What we do know is that the media gender gap emerges is a range of different, but interdependent ways. There are too many dimensions of the issue for me to cover in the space of this article. Instead, I will touch three main ways inequality is entrenched in our media. The first type I will call “financial disparity” and the second, “objectification”. The third is arguably the most overlooked and the one the GMMP hones in on, “invisibility.”

The first factor, “financial disparity” is tied to the ways we try and discuss inequality within the realm of “industry” or “capitalism” . When we talk about inequality: race, gender, religion etc. in these contexts, we generally connect it to economic terms. How many cents does a woman make to a man’s dollar? How are her earnings influenced by childbirth? Even less obvious ones like: Why are there less females engineers?

These questions have explicit connections to monetary wealth. This is because we understand earnings and dollar signs to be an illustration of an individual’s relative worth, and overall quality of life. For this reason we can look at money and say: “If two people are equally qualified, and performing the same role, in the same environment, they should earn the same amount. If not, something is unequal”.  Of course you could debate the reasons for this inequality, however, you could not debate the fact that one person earns more than the other. You could measure this, or set it up like a math equation and it would still make sense.

Activists, Researchers, and the general public love to talk about inequality in these terms because they are clear cut, concise, and hard to argue with. This is the dimension of “inequality” most of us have a baseline understanding of. This is not because it is necessarily the most important or only type of inequality, but because it’s the easiest to understand.

There is also a another type of inequality most of us understand. This is objectification. In recent years the objectification of women in the media has come to light, though it has certainly not gone away. When it comes to sexualising, or objectifying women, explaining the issue is relatively simple. Similar to “financial disparity”, “objectification” is easy to identify because it is something you can see and touch.

For example, we can hold a picture and say: “I see that woman, I see the environment she is positioned in, I see what she is wearing, I see the words surrounding her, etc.”

If there is a debate over “objectification” it would usually centre on the meaning  or impact of an image, rather than the the existence of the image itself. The “artifact” (picture, text, image) that contains the inequality serves as proof, or at least, a tangible point for debate. In this way, objectification is a clear-cut, and relatively obvious form of inequality that for the most part we all understand.

So, why does invisibility matter?  More importantly, what can you do about it today?

Lastly, there is invisibility. This is the dimension of inequality that the GMMP seemingly centred on. I would argue very few of us think about, understand, or consider, inequality in these terms because you guessed it, it is invisible.

Despite the lack of conversation surrounding the invisibility of women in the media, its effects are equally serious to other forms of discrimination.  The impact of invisibility is bigger than the lack of women in professional media roles, it literally alters the news itself. Embedded in nearly every piece of news you consume (according to the statistics) is a predisposition to feature, discuss, and refer to exclusively, men.

Only 28% of Irish news “sources” (meaning the people quoted, interviewed or paraphrased) were women.The women who make up this 28% were as a majority in “homemaker” or “celebrity” roles, with an extreme disparity in contexts that called for “experts”. Females represented only 10% of the science technology/engineers mentioned overall; 15% of the teachers, academics, or educational professionals; and a mere 3% of athletes, or sports personnel included. – Regional  statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP

So what is wrong with what the media is not showing us?

Before you ask: “what’s wrong with talking to men? Hear me out. Talking about or with men is not the problem; never speaking with, or about women, is.

Unsurprisingly,  the report found that female journalists, were more likely to include female subjects within their writing. Proving that diversity in staff, feeds diversity in story.

  • Women reporters were nearly twice as likely as men to write stories which had a central female focus and women were twice as likely to write stories which challenged gender stereotypes than men. – Regional statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP

 

A media researcher, John Thompson’s work better explains the social impact of invisibility in the media.  Thompson claimed that the media was “the domain of the visible” in modern societies. He argued that it worked as not only the primary forum for publicising social values, but also a formative element of these values themselves.

Basically, according to Thompson, when things appear in the media, particularly in the news, they signal to the public: “Hey! this thing is worthy of your time and consideration. This thing matters.” When this message is disseminated, the ‘thing’ that was pushed out in the media,becomes immediately more important to the public.

Invisibility works covertly to the contrary. If things aren’t publicised in the media there is little chance we will find out about them, which limits our ability to care. This doesn’t mean they fail to exist, but rather, that we don’t know they exist. Which if you ask me, is pretty much the same thing.

This is kind of like the: “if a tree falls in the forest” scenario. If a tree falls, a person exists, an issue exists, but our news station doesn’t tell us, our ability to consider it vanishes.

Enough about what’s wrong, what can I do about it?

According to Thompson, and many other media studies, this process of invisibility is a two way thing. What the media tells us impacts how we think, but what we tell the media, impacts what they tell us. So, this is where you come in. And the best part is, you don’t even need to get up from the couch, or off of your smart phone.

When we seek out, spend time, and tweet about certain topics, the news listens. News networks operate off  of a bottom line (no matter what they say!) and that bottom line is driven by you. Digital is the space where news consumer’s actions are the most quantifiable. Thus, what audiences read and share online has become a key element of how news networks determine what stories make the news.

The GMMP not only found that women were widely absent from mainstream news, but also, digital news and stories circulated through social media alike.

The report found that only 26% of online news reports included women. – GMMP

News producers know what you read, what you search, how long you spend reading, and even where your mouse hovers. In the constant bombardment of puppy/baby/fail videos it is hard to strike a balance between what you want to watch, and what you should  watch. But this is what makes for a responsible news consumer.

Turns out, all that time we spend thinking of Kim Kardashian’s new outfit takes away from our consideration of other news items. But don’t worry, I am not saying you should never read the gossip column.

What I am saying is that: Your mouse, and your smart phone are the equivalent to your media ballot.

This doesn’t mean you have to delete Perez Hilton from your bookmarks. Instead, I am suggesting that you occasionally make a conscious effort to seek out a story about, or authored by, a woman. If you want to go one step further take that news story and talk about it. Do this once a week, once a day, and voila! You have done something useful, and can now call your internet procrastination meaningful.

Have you reinvented the wheel? No.

Abolished global oppression? No.

Sent a message to your news providers that you want to hear from and about women. Yes.

A small step in the right direction, all from the comfort of your smart phone. What’s not to like about that?