Sunday, 3 April 2011

I hit the glass ceiling. It really hurts.

I let my rage get the better of me. During the last five years of my career I couldn’t help but notice the extreme under-representation of women as featured or reviewed artists, star interviews, commentators, recipients of major appointments and commissions, critics, leaders, guest speakers, panellists, experts and debate participants. I noticed the rosters of group art exhibitions, reviews spreads and mastheads in newspapers and magazines and the numbers of women (not) displayed in bookshops or honoured on prize shortlists in all areas of the arts. I wrote articles about these issues, telling the absolute truth about what I witnessed and experiences, and here they are:

I wrote with and about despair, frustration, rage, realisation and positivity. Many women contacted me and told me they felt the same way. Some of the women were famous, many worked in the arts or the media, some were culture-lovers unconnected with these industries. Nearly all were strangers who had felt moved to get in touch, because they had noticed exactly the same things and been offended by the same old misogynistic excuses. They congratulated me on my bravery, although I do not have any. I have sadness instead.

I was blacklisted. I lost my career. I regret biting the hand that fed. What did I think I would achieve? I regret rocking the boat, even though it’s rowing me and all other women straight to hell. Perhaps I should have shut up and put up.

At a party a few months ago, in a haunting exchange that has been in my thoughts ever since, I was approached by a legendary woman. This woman is in her seventies now. She is renowned as a champion of women authors and artists, a critic, a writer, a great reader, a mind, a wit and (I’m sure she won’t mind me saying so) a right good hedonist too. She said, “I have something to tell you. You must be very careful. My power and my ability to change the world… were silenced.”

I pretend that I am proud and defiant. I pretend that it was worth it. I pretend that it is not totally and utterly devastating to lose a twenty year career that I adore and am excellent at, simply for stating what I have witnessed or pointing out what is obvious. I pretend that I can’t remember and do not care about the sheer joy of the process: working with erudite, experienced and dynamic facilitators and researchers, meeting intelligent guests, visiting fascinating exhibitions, debating big ideas and complex issues, talking in-depth to geniuses, critiquing work and explaining my own ideas. The depth, detail and refinement of the content have been peerless. The topics and the colleagues have been diverse in every single way except one: women are excluded from all positions of prestige, even a five minute slot in a discussion.

I mourn the loss of this, with harsh grief. I ask myself what is worse: colluding with a discriminatory culture, making no difference and surviving; or speaking up, making no difference and being crushed. When a woman hits the glass ceiling or is punished for talking, she is supposed to look left and right, think laterally, then go off and do something else. But I do not want to do something else. I want my career back. But I do not want to be surrounded by contempt for women - a contempt so profound that women's names do not even arise in conversation -  or to witness the poison of female misogyny in practice. So I pretend that in the wake of total destruction, there is opportunity. I pretend to believe in magical thinking and in the grand plan of the cosmos, where everything happens for a reason. I pretend to believe that when one door closes, another opens.

Then, one night, I’m organising my filing cabinet. This is a slim steel beauty with different drawers for different book projects; if I get an idea I write it down and slot it into the appropriate drawer. I discover a stack of notes, scripts and tallies I’ve printed out or jotted down in the middle of broadcasting or recording things, waiting for interviewees or having meetings in 2008 and 2009. This, with no editorialising, is what I found.

1. A note on the back of a TV script: “On the side of [famous male telly pundit’s desk]: 20 books, 18 by men, 2 by women. On the desk itself: 6 books, all by men.”

2. A tally of radio items I’ve presented, on a piece of paper with a quaint illustration and caption saying Jane Austen’s Writing Table: “Two men talking about neuroscience and the mind; two men talking about the value of the Internet and the future of criticism; two men talking about the Prix Pictet photography prize; two men talking about psychoanalysis; two men talking about superheroes; two men talking about craft; the four men I introduced for [an arts festival]; two men talking about the English civil war. There have never been two women on discussing anything at all.” I’ve added a distressed note: “Is this what the future’s going to be like? The same as the past? You say I’m the chair, the director, the moderator. I’m the hostess.”

3. A script for a radio show on Tuesday 17th February 2009, from the recycling bin. I'm using it as scrap paper. A male presenter, a female studio producer and a female broadcast assistant. A man reviews another man’s film. A man talks about his new book. A man who’s a veteran broadcaster talks about a famous documentary series he commissioned, which was presented by another man, who was a politician in Mrs Thatcher’s all-male cabinet. There are no women.

4. A tally from the web site for a current affairs TV show. Different comment sections are written by different correspondents covering topics like Ecology, China, America, the UK, Europe, Sport, News and Politicians. There are 14 men and one woman. There are also links to blogs written by insiders at the Today programme (two men), Working Lunch (one man) and World Tonight (another man).

5. Back to the Jane Austen souvenir jotter pad. A tally of the last fifteen different shows I’ve presented, covering five months of work. There were 63 male guests and only 27 women; two of the shows had no women at all, and either 6 or 7 men.

6. Scrap paper: the first page of the script for Start the Week on Radio 4, on the back of which I’d written a cue for something unrelated. [EDIT: I have never worked on or listened to Start The Week so I do not know if this particular edition is representative.] The show is for Monday 1st June 2009. The producer, assistant producer and broadcast assistants are all women.  The presenter is a man and his guests are three men and one woman.

7. The full trailer script for a discussion programme on Tuesday 2nd June 2009. The producer and broadcast assistant are both women. The presenter is a man and he is speaking to a man who wrote a non-fiction book about crime, two men reviewing another man’s exhibition and a man who wrote a novel about a real-life famous male. There are no women.

8. My trailer for a weekend omnibus pulling together the highlights of various cultural shows for the previous week. I introduce the collection: two male presenters, a male author for the Young Adult market, a male politics pundit, a male academic on immigration, a male composer, a male playwright, a live male novelist talking about a dead male novelist, another novelist. No women.

I remember now why I am angry. All it would take to alter this is for producers, editors, organisers and commissioners to call women, to cover women, to support women, to include women, to respect women, to credit women, to honour women. All it would take is for women, victims and perpetrators alike, to revolt, to fight, to unite, to challenge, to refuse, to change. 

UPDATE: Another day, another clearout. I discover one of my work notebooks from 2006. I use these notebooks to write down interesting ideas, words and names... and complaints:

1. On the [flagship arts show] web site, under Drama, Literature, Art, Music and Dance, there are only male names as featured interviews. One interview is with 3 men, about how they've dramatised the novel of a 4th man with the help of a famous director, man 5. The cast of the adapted novel calls for 11 more men and 2 women (the wife and the mistress).

2. I am a guest critic on Front Row on Radio 4 on 29th September 2006. The presenter is the lovely and brilliant Kirsty Lang. We listen to an introduction for the show, which namechecks Doctor Who, Ridley Scott, Anthony Minghella and Robin Hood. "All the heroes," I say frustratedly. "Where are the heroines?" "Exactly," says Kirsty immediately with a clear, fast, acute glance at me.

3. On 31st December 2006 the Sunday Times presents its 2006 Magic Moments: "Our critics choose this year's standout events in the arts." There are ten critics, covering theatre, film, TV, art, music, comedy, radio, pop, architecture and dance. All ten are white men.