essays & posts

We’re At the Table. But Are We Changing the Game?

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

May 18  ∼ 5 minute read

There are more women in leadership roles. But what’s our difference?

The Women on Air (WOA) organisation wants to encourage more women to have their voices heard on the key issues that shape our society in order to redress the gender imbalance in a media environment dominated by male ‘expert’ voices.

At its inaugural conference in Dublin Castle last Monday, Katie Orenstein, founder and CEO of New York’s OpEd Project presented a compelling keynote address and of the many thought-provoking statistics she quoted, one spoke to the heart of her thesis: in a five month tracking by the Washington Post of its own opinion page, just nine per cent of its op eds were written by women because (wait for it) only twelve per cent of submissions came from women.

In other words, you can’t win a battle you aren’t fighting. So, I’m weighing in.

Speakers Maggie O’Kane of The Guardian and Áine Lawlor of RTÉ at the Women on Air conference at Dublin Castle

Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

I attended the conference because over twenty years ago I was actively involved in helping to build up Network – The Organisation for Women in Business, a voluntary networking organisation much like WOA, but focused more broadly on women’s participation in the world of work. I was curious to see what has changed since then and the answer is, not much.

Very quickly, the various WOA panellists fell into the same trap we fell into back in the nineties.

Indeed, one contributor recalled an eighty year old woman who stood up at another women’s event to say: “It’s been a wonderful evening ladies, but we were talking about all of this fifty years ago!

So why haven’t things changed?

I’ve come to believe it’s because we’re looking in the wrong place, trying to solve the wrong problem and coming up with the wrong solutions.

Like so many conversations about women I’ve participated in over the decades, the WOA conference quickly degenerated into problematising women by identifying a long of list of what’s wrong with us: apparently we hold back because of concerns about the way we look, our age, our weight, doubt about our readiness, lack of confidence in our own expertise, and so on.

I’m familiar with this trap: Let’s Fix Women. Let’s empower them, train them, network them. Let’s get more of them into the boardroom and on-air by creating lists of women qualified to be there.

Network compiled such a list twenty years ago. Did it make any difference?

Well, there are more women in boardrooms these days and more women in senior positions of all kinds, including behind the scenes in the media. Even more reason to wonder why, with our increased presence, things haven’t changed.

According to the WOA conference, it’s because just at the moment when women should be ‘leaning in’ women ‘lean out’ to have children, and never quite catch up again. We have Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to thank for that much quoted but rather convenient and simplistic analysis, which tells the corporate world what it wants to hear but doesn’t challenge its culture. And everyone in Dublin Castle seemed to buy it.

But what if it’s only half the story?

The invisible driver of culture.


Orenstein was addressing the question “Who is shaping our world?”

I suggest a more subtle and important question is “What is shaping our world?”

And having reflected on this for half my life I’m convinced the answer is this: we are being shaped by a way of thinking and behaving that is antithetical to our humanity and hostile to women (and men) whose ambitions rise above being a good corporate soldier.

In the research she presents in her groundbreaking book Disappearing Act, Professor Joyce Fletcher shows how the very qualities and behaviours organisations claim they want – emotional intelligence, relational skills, collaboration and so on – often get ‘disappeared’ in practice because they collide with powerful, gender-linked images of what ‘successful behaviour’ looks like.

Many of the women (and men) who survive and thrive in corporate environments are those who, like Sheryl Sandberg, have swallowed the uber-rational, linear, mechanical corporate model, hook-line-and-sinker.

Successful girls don’t just play nice with the boys. They become exactly like the boys, perpetuating the pale, stale, male, bum-numbingly-boring dominant corporate culture rather than challenging it by embodying an entirely different way of being.

Once at the table, too few women choose to live and work out of an alternative story and the efforts of those who do try are ‘disappeared’.

I believe that’s why we are not living in a different world and why too little has changed, despite the gains made in terms of women participating in decision-making processes.

It’s a paradox. The collision of gender and power ‘disappears’ the very behaviour (and people) organisations say they need and undermines the possibility of radical culture change, not only in the office and the board room but in the media too.

At the WOA conference, speakers encouraged us to buck the trend among women, by having the confidence to say “Yes” to invitations to participate on-air.

Personally I’ve never declined a media invitation because I’m no longer a size twelve or because I doubt that I have something to say.

However I have declined because I don’t believe I will be given an opportunity to say what I have to say. And I have left studios quietly seething and saying “Never again!” will I subject myself to the kind of adversarial culture that dominates the airwaves, where complex issues are reduced to sound bites, poorly constructed panels result in too many people fighting for too little airtime and there’s a binary, black-and-white, right-or-wrong presentation of issues the programme makers haven’t tried to understand.

Neither the issues nor the audience are served by this modus operandi, yet it persists.

And by the way, there are tons of women behind the scenes (and the microphones) shaping our media.

What matters is not the cup size or heel height of media decision-makers but the nature and quality of the consciousness that’s shaping content. And on-air, what matters is not the pitch of the voices we hear but the quality of their ideas.

I hear too few people of either gender contributing compelling new ideas on air or challenging the old ones. If the media agenda is shovelling the same old shit rather than changing the game, then getting more female hands on the shovel is not the solution.

Anti-FGM campaigners prepare to deliver a 250,000-signature petition to education secretary Michael Gove.

Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/Guardian

Values in action.


For me, The Guardian’s Maggie O’Kane was the shining light of the WOA conference and an embodiment of what it means to bring a different sensibility to the media table.

The project on female genital mutilation she is spearheading as Multimedia Investigations and Campaigns Editor at her newspaper is testimony to what it means to challenge the news agenda and change it.

While her male colleagues were fixated on Nick Clegg’s response to whoever-whatever-wherever (oh yawn) she was inspired by a group of Muslim schoolgirls who had the balls to challenge Education Secretary Michael Gove to put legs under Britain’s law on FGM.

With the backing of The Guardian and they succeeded in pressurising politicians to do their job and secured the support of Ban Ki Moon and the UN to challenge a brutal practice affecting 140 million girls and women.

Now, that’s girl power! It’s an inspiring vision for the future role of the media in transforming our world for the better and worth writing about precisely because it’s so rare.

It demonstrates what happens when we have the courage to bring our humanity to the work we do, whatever that work is, and when the corporate environment has the wisdom to welcome it.

Perhaps the greatest damage perpetrated by contemporary corporate culture is the creation and maintenance of the gap between our inner and outer worlds and the degree to which people of both genders are required to keep their deepest human values under wraps in order to maintain their ‘credibility’ in professional settings.

Both women and men are victims of this way of being, and if it is to change, both women and men must challenge it.

If more women have the bottle to change the nature of the game by bringing more of their humanity into their work and into the media, then by all means let’s have more women on air.

If we are not willing to do that then quite honestly girls, we might as well stay at home.

Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

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