A woman in a black blazer with arms crossed and standing up against a grey wall.
Image: Dr Sarah Arnold

‘Women are still perceived as a subset in the media industry’

3 May 2019

While focus on women in the media industry has increased, Dr Sarah Arnold says there’s much more to be done to improve representation.

In recent years, there has been much more discussion about the representation of women in film, television and the media industry.

In Hollywood, there is a real, tangible focus on diversity when it comes to films but, unfortunately, the number of female directors is still startlingly low. So, is the shift that we may see displayed to the public the same as real representation? Or does the media industry still have a long way to go when it comes to proper representation of women?

Dr Sarah Arnold is a media lecturer at Maynooth University and her research focuses on women’s roles and participation in film, television and media. “In the past I focused on representations of women on screen, and in recent years I have been concerned with women in the industry or industry perspectives on and treatment of women,” she said.

With media becoming more and more central to our daily lives, Arnold said examining the media industry can tell us a lot about women’s place in society. “In the media industries, we see how women are rendered peripheral or are marginalised. Women account for half of the population but they are often excluded from design considerations, from media production and from media representation,” she said.

Currently, Arnold is working on a book on the history of women’s engagement with media, from the mid-1800s to the rise of television in the 1950s. “What’s evident is a struggle for women to be able to access these industries or these media experiences. For example, when cinema arrived women were encouraged to attend matinée shows rather than evening performances as it was considered more appropriate,” she said. “In addition, what I found is that women had an easier time gaining work in the very early days of a medium in comparison to when it professionalised.”

‘There’s a need to be careful about mistaking increased attention to women in film and media with actual employment’

Arnold is also working on a project with colleague Dr Anne O’Brien that investigates the experiences of young graduates in the media industry. “We feel it’s important to understand the various barriers to entry that graduates face when entering the media industries as this can help in developing strategies that make them more inclusive.”

One major trend Arnold has noticed is the championing of women who have roles within the media industry and also the recognition of the lack of women more generally. However, it’s not enough to simply acknowledge and recognise. Something still needs to be done.

“I think there’s a need to be careful about mistaking increased attention to women in film and media with actual employment of women in film and media,” said Arnold. “There are examples of women in leadership positions in particular organisations, or women directing or producing major film and media projects. However, these are not necessarily representative of the entire sector, which still has low participation of women.”

However, the acknowledgement of the lack of gender diversity is still a positive step and Arnold said that these discussions can lead to more policies and practices that will start moving the needle.

Actionable rather than tokenistic

“Progress has been much slower than it should have been, although there are a number of positive initiatives underway in the Irish media industries. Screen Ireland, for example, has been quite assertive in developing policy in regard to women in the audiovisual sector,” she said. “I think what’s really important here is that such policies and initiatives are long-term and actionable rather than tokenistic and temporary.”

Arnold also cited organisations and networks such as Women in Film and Television Ireland as well as Women in Animation Ireland, which help to nurture solidarity among women in the media and challenge some forms of discrimination and exclusion. She added that the Dublin Feminist Film Festival is an excellent showcase of women’s work.

“Women are still perceived as a subset both as media producers and as audiences,” said Arnold. “For example, a film directed by a man might be referred to as a film by a director. A film directed by a woman might be referred to as a ‘woman’s film’ by a female director. This gives the impression that it is niche rather than general-interest.”

Arnold also said one particular issue that needs to be addressed is the perception of women’s place in the media industry. She said that even with all the data that highlights the low numbers of women in technical roles, the same excuses continue to be used instead of addressing the fact that there is a systemic problem.

“The idea that the media industries are meritocratic is largely false. While talented people may do well, there are extensive barriers to entry that result in female exclusion. These range from issues such as maternity leave and parental care to intimidating work environments that deter women from even applying for certain roles.”

She also spoke about the perception that women just don’t like technical or physical work, or even may not be as capable. However, with her 15 years’ experience educating and training women in film and television production, Arnold has found that women are, of course, equally as capable. And yet, the real-life examples of the false perception continue to appear.

“One classic example of this that I see over and over is on student group productions formed of men and women. Time and time again, male group members will try to command a project and sideline women even if the male group members are less capable,” she said. “While the women in the group might doubt their own abilities as a result or perceive it as a problem with an individual, I see it as a pattern of gendered behaviour.”

While it’s clear that problems are being brought out from the shadows and positive initiatives are continuing to thrive, Arnold warns that when it comes to women’s participation in film and media, it is quite cyclical from a historical point of view.

“As we see more focus on women in film and media today, we shouldn’t assume that the doors to these industries will always be open, which means that we need to maintain pressure over the long term.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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