Those of you who are familiar with my blog will know that I have some interest in women’s rights and representation in parliament, the media, literature and film.

Today I came across an interesting chart. have been analysing US election coverage in national print, TV broadcast and radio outlets. This chart breaks down how often men, women and organisations were quoted in relation to the specific women’s issues of contraception, abortion and women’s rights, during the six month period of 11/1/11 to 5/1/12.

81% of statements about abortion across media covering the 2012 US election were made by men.

Obviously, men are by nature never going to be faced with the quandary of whether or not they can afford the social, financial, emotional and physical consequences of their own unplanned or medically dangerous pregnancy, whether it resulted from consensual sex or from rape.

As political satirist Stephen Colbert puts it, ‎“If you want to avoid getting pregnant there is only one surefire way. Be a man.

So, how can women’s representation be so poor on issues that specifically relate to women’s bodies?

The US election coverage has shone a light on a problem that many of us were not entirely aware of before – the lack of women’s voices in public debate. It is also worth noting that many of the most influential films and publications are also lacking adequate representation of the 50.2% of the population that is still, remarkably, treated as a minority.

I am a big believer in statistics and research, as they help us look beyond the natural biases of our own experience. Let’s take a look at some stats.

I have gone over the hard facts on gender bias in literary publications before, to some pretty heated responses. Although statistically, women buy the majority of published novels, and although about equal numbers of women and men are published (yay!), women are still vastly underrepresented in awards and reviews. In Australia, for instance, 70% of the authors reviewed in the Weekend Australian in 2011 were male, and of the authors reviewed in the now defunct Australian Literary Review in 2011, 81% were male. Likewise, the Fin Review featured 79% male authors. These depressing stats are also reflected in major overseas publications like London Review of Books (504 males to only 117 female writers), The New York Review of Books (627 men to only 143 women) etc, all illustrated in neat pie charts by ‘The Count’ at VIDA.

Of course 2011 could have been a bad year for literature written by women. Sadly, a look at the 2010 stats shows the same pattern.

As novelist Dr. Kerryn Goldsworthy, a former editor of Australian Book Review and a former member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, has said, ‘Most of the unconscious bias I have seen in the literary world, and I have seen a great deal, has been to do with the male-centered values of a dominant culture whose values most people wrongly think are universal and gender-neutral.’

What about film? This short video by Anita Sarkeesian neatly explains something called the ‘Bechdel test’, created (originally in jest) by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie simply needs to have at least two female characters who talk to each other at some point in the film about anything other than a man. Easy, right? Except that a remarkable number of films (some films I dearly love) fail this test.

Out of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars last year, only 2 films clearly passed the Bechdel Test.

As the video explains: ‘The Bechdel test is best when used as a tool to evaluate Hollywood as an institution. It can be applied to pretty much any grouping of mainstream movies such as the Golden Globes nominees or the top grossing films of any given year, all with similar results. The test helps us identify the lack of relevant and meaningful female roles as a larger pattern in the film industry as a whole. The problem isn’t restricted to any individual movie, director or genre.’

Again, this is an important point when it comes to ALL analysis of gender bias. Gender bias is often unconscious, and it is not the fault of any one film, TV show, newspaper, radio program, editor or individual. It is not even the fault of one gender. And as the video states, the Bechdel test does not indicate whether or not a film is any good or even whether or not the females portrayed are empowered, feminist or positive role models of any kind. But as a general tool, the Bechdel test does illuminate the fact that the majority of films are still made from the male perspective, with male characters telling stories about men’s lives.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that it took 82 years for a woman to win an Oscar for Best Director (The first and only female director to win was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010). And not one of the 22 films in contention for the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at Cannes this year is directed by a woman.

(Note: Sarkeesian, in the Bechdel video I linked to above, has received an alarming amount of aggressive, sexist harassment for discussing women’s representation in media and video games. ‘These are serious threats of violence, harassment and slander across many online platforms meant to intimidate and silence. And its not okay.’ Read about it here.)

When I was at the Met in London recently, I picked up this famous postcard by Guerrilla Girls, a group dedicated to increasing representation of female artists:

Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.

This is an incredible stat, but anyone who has spent time in an art museum would immediately recognise that statistic as true, give or take some percentage points. We are so accustomed to seeing female nudes by famous male artists that we have become blind to the imbalance, as with so many other issues related to gender. (Or indeed race, which is another worthwhile discussion.)

These stats clearly indicate that gender bias in media, film, literature and the art world is a worthwhile discussion. But what about women’s representation in parliament? What about the people who actually make the public policies we are required to live by?

As the government web page Australian Women in Politics points out, ‘While New Zealand had granted women the right to vote in 1893, in 1902, Australia granted women the right to vote and also to seek election…The victory was indeed groundbreaking, but the next hurdle proved even more difficult as it took nearly 22 years for a woman to enter federal parliament. Ironically, this ‘time lag’ was the longest of any Western country.’

It’s interesting to see the government page on women in parliament use Carol Porter’s amusing 1997 poster, Don’t Get Mad, Get Elected. The image plays on two damaging stereotypes about women’s rights activists. Firstly, that they are ‘mad’. (Their male counterparts are what…determined? Focussed?) The other is the image of the dangerous woman, destroying civilisation, in this case Parliament House itself.

So, where do we stand in 2012? (Not straddling parliament in a one-piece, I feel sure.)

In Katharine Murphy’s SMH piece, ‘The Truth About Sex and Power in Australia’ she points out that, ‘Women comprise 50.2 per cent of Australia’s population, but new Parliamentary Library research finds women ”comprise less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australia, and occupy less than one-quarter of all Cabinet positions.”

Despite having our first female PM, Australia’s rank internationally for representation of women in parliament has slipped from 21 to 38 over the past decade.

When I presented these stats online, it was immediately met with this response: ‘Shocking that people KEEP those stats! Reverse sexism is equally bad ! SHOULD be about correct person for position,NOT some ‘Divine’ gender balance.’

Don’t get me wrong, I totally hear those of you who say gender shouldn’t matter. You are right. I agree. Unfortunately though, statistics both historically and presently indicate that greater equality in women’s political representation equates to better policies for women and children. And that does matter.

To give an example, Nordic countries – which have excellent maternity policies, to name just one issue – have the highest representation of women in parliament. Arab states have the lowest.

Let’s also consider this: Women working full time in Australia earn on average 17% less than their male counterparts.

That is about one million dollars over a lifetime. A one million dollar gender tax does seem steep, doesn’t it? Women also retire with less than half the superannuation of men. In fact, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission:

The average superannuation payout for women is a third of the payout for men – $37,000 compared with $110,000. Many Australian women are living their final years in poverty.

As long as one gender continues to be paid less, represented less, and continues to be consistently less involved in parliamentary decision making and public debate (even when it is about their own bodies), we have to conclude that unfortunately, gender still does matter.

Gender mattered when people were not allowed to vote, to own their own property or earn their own money simply because they were born female, and although those battles have been won by the feminists of the past who cared enough to fight for equal rights, sadly gender still matters. It is when we consider these various imbalances in representation, pay and financial security for one half of our population that we begin to see the true status of that half.

I’m grateful to the organisations who keep these statistics, because it is far too easy to dismiss the ongoing problem of inequality when we don’t have the numbers.
Tara Moss

Some links to organisations attempting to address gender imbalance:

Equal Pay Facts – A website that explains the issue of equal pay in Australia.

Emily’s List – Encouraging the participation of women in Australian politics.

The Stella Prize A new Australian prize for women’s writing.

VIDA’s ‘Count – Statistics on gender bias in various literary publications.

Sisters in Crime, Australia – Promoting and nurturing the talent of women crime writers.

Sisters In Crime The international branch, founded in 1986 to promote the professional development and advancement of women writing crime fiction.

Business Chicks – Australian business network for women.

Parlour – Women, architecture, equity.

No Chicks No Excuses – ‘There’s no excuse for not having women speakers. Inspirational females to enliven your next conference, panel, board, think tank, article, broadcast, programme or lecture’.

Women at Telstra – Programs, initiatives and awards.

UNICEF Australia – Working closely with women, children, communities and governments in over 150 countries to protect human rights.

YWCA Australia – A women-led organisation that provides advocacy, programs and services for women, families and communities.

Know some more? Please tell us about it, below.