Leeds Trinity academic presents research on female politicians in the press to MPs at parliament

Research by a Leeds Trinity Journalism academic was hailed as ‘important’ work by Mary Mcleod MP in her opening remarks to an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality examining media coverage of women in politics.

Ms O’Neill, Associate Principal Lecturer in Journalism (pictured right), and co-author Dr Heather Savigny of Bournemouth University (pictured left), were presenting their findings on press coverage of female politicians over the last 20 years, in a session organised by the Fawcett Society.

Their work showed that women in 2012 were receiving less coverage in proportion to their relative numbers in Parliament than in 2002 and 1992, and that they were being quoted less than 20 years ago.

The research, supported by a small grant from the Association of Journalism Education, also demonstrated that Conservative and Labour women were receiving proportionally more negative coverage than their male counterparts by 2012, while female Liberal Democrats were generally ignored. “In our sample in 2012, no female Labour politicians received any positive coverage,” said Deirdre O’Neill.

Ms O’Neill and Dr Savigny recommended that a media monitoring group be set up, comprising politicians, media representatives and academics.

The findings were discussed alongside presentations from Times journalist and former Observer Political Editor, Gaby Hinsliff, and journalist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates.

Ms Bates, who regularly visits schools and colleges to talk to young people about the widespread incidences of sexism recorded by women from all walks of life through her digital project (70,000 responses so far), was particularly concerned about how the trivializing and marginalization of women in politics was affecting the aspirations of young women. She said she had found that most of the young women she spoke to had no desire to enter public life or the political arena when they saw how women were treated by the media.  This would have a detrimental effect on Parliament becoming more representative of the general population.

She also argued that negative coverage in the press was part of a continuum that ‘normalised’ sexist attitudes towards half the population, and created a space where some social media users – including some MPs – thought it was acceptable to undermine and threaten women (see Michael Fabricant’s tweets about Yasmin Aliba-Brown).

A well-informed debate followed, taking in issues such as ageism, class and democratic representation.                                                                            

Chair of the Group, Diane Abbott MP (pictured in the centre), welcomed the research and other presentations, and pointed out that party press offices needed to do more to promote female politicians – and a wider range of women – in the media. Co-chair Bernard Jenkins MP called on his male colleagues to participate in this debate, rather than dismissing it as a ‘women’s’ issue.  

They agreed to meet to discuss taking the issue further forward.