Why female voices in podcasting are so important

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We can’t let new platforms mirror the sexism and diversity issues of traditional media, says Stylist’s Chloe Gray. Here’s why she thinks all women should be listening to, and starting their own, podcasts. 

My life has always been female-centric: from attending an all-girls secondary school, to doing a degree with a 63% female student body, to now working in the women’s magazine industry. Perhaps because of that, I look for female-curated and created content, including books, radio and TV. I actively search for female voices and ideas. 

But that means I live in an echo chamber, so I forget that media is generally dominated by men: two-thirds of bylines in reporting belong to them, they make up eight out of 10 music festival headliners, and women are the focus of only 10% of news stories, comprise just 20% of experts or spokespeople interviewed, and a mere 4% of news stories are deemed to challenge gender stereotypes.

I’m hopeful that’s changing. The BBC pay discrimination court case is just one example of equality coming into the limelight, but the the rise of new media platforms is really helping to put women in control. In fact, 85% of influencers are women, and, according to a study, earn more than 35% more per post than their male equivalents. But, let’s be honest: Instagram success is often still based on women commodifying their bodies. The platform that I think has the ability to give power to women’s voices? Podcasts (literally). 

I credit podcasts with educating me about the things I now hold as essential life lessons. And they’re big game: 7.1 million people in the UK listen to podcasts, with that number growing among the young generation. They are a place where Deborah Frances-White can talk about refugees, feminism and privilege (on the latest episode of The Guilty Feminist she even said: “A podcast is a radio show that nobody can stop you making.”). Where Laura Thomas can call out diet culture. Where Otegha Uwagba can talk about racism and sexism in business. 

What makes them so important is that they’re limitless – it’s not a one hour segment in a whole day of programming, but every day new podcasts discussing the issues that we care about are launched. They’ve been so influential to me that I started my own. The Girlfriends podcast challenges how we view female friendships through the eyes of young best friends. 

“I think stories have the power to really change things, and so it’s really important that women are podcasting,” agrees Sophie Herdman, content director at podcast-hosting platform Acast. “It’s a really intimate environment for people to tell more stories, with this really strong bond between the listener and the host. That kind of bond can really affect change, especially if we’re looking at feminism and inspiring people.”

But, the main problem with podcasts is that they mirror a traditional medium – radio. Unfortunately it appears that the traditional male-dominated structure is already trickling down, and while I search my podcast app for the latest in female-focused conversation, the fact is that male-fronted podcasting dominates the charts. In 2018, women only hosted 22% of podcasts. And in 2017 women only hosted or co-hosted about a third of the top-100 podcasts on the Apple podcast chart. Like other industries, female-fronted content is starting to grow – at the time of writing, 19 out of the top 50 podcasts were hosted solely by women, six had mixed-sex hosts, and four had no or a changing host (The Archers, News Quiz, Case File and Ted Talks). 

But numbers and ratings aren’t the only problem. In fact, getting into podcasting is relatively easy, all you need is a quiet room, a decent-ish microphone and a laptop. It’s the sexism women face once they put out the content that can often stop us from even trying. One example is the complaints directed towards the This American Life podcast. Last year, they announced that people were attacking their female hosts ‘vocal fry’, the term that refers to a more nasal, higher-pitched tone of voice. A study found those who have it are thought to be less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable. But because that tone of voice is more commonly associated with women, I believe it’s less the actual noise that people struggle with and more the gender of the person who is producing it. If you’ve grown up being told that female voices are less authoritative then you will probably be less inclined to listen and trust them when you hear it. The way to change that? Listen to more women, which shouldn’t need to be a directive in 2019.

The other problem female podcasters face is “an unconscious bias”, according to Hannah Maguire from true crime podcast RedHanded. “Because mainstream media is still dominated by men, audiences are more used to men’s voices. They’re used to that type of storytelling. And as a female podcaster, your audience is probably going to predominantly be women, just because they think ‘they’re like me, therefore I feel comfortable listening to their content’.”

Hannah’s co-host Suruthi Bala says that, despite their podcast being one of the top charting true crime podcasts, people assume they don’t know their stuff: “We’ve definitely seen comments on social media that I find grossly unfair and that wouldn’t be made to a male. Someone genuinely posted about us saying we’re just two women who gossip about true crime and giggle.” 

What they actually do is bring a different and often-lacking perspective to true crime: “Most of the listeners of true crime are women, and, unfortunately, a lot of the victims of true crime stories are also women,” explains Suruthi. “A lot of the true crime podcasts that are out there have underlying accusations of insidious victim blaming. Like a woman’s out, she’s drunk. While no one’s going to be stupid enough to say, ‘Well, she was asking for it’, they’re not going far enough to challenge society’s view that she’s not asking for it. If you are, not to be too cliché, but a white man talking about this, how comfortable do you feel delving into that space? And I think that we can do that.”

So how do we convince women to get their voices out there, to change the narratives and make sure podcasts don’t become as narrow minded as other audio counterparts? “I’m a big believer in role modelling,” says Sophie. “Once more of an audience start listening to podcasts, more people therefore start doing them.” Acast’s Women in Podcasting event at the London Podcast Festival set out to achieve this with a free panel talk, expert advice and female-first view at the industry. The main take away was that as long as you have a story to tell, there shouldn’t be anything stopping you. 

Taking up space in the online world is more important than ever: with fake news in the online space still rife and women still facing blatant sexism in media (hello, Zoe Ball being blamed for a declining listenership because of her gender), the self-created platform that is podcasting is where we can create change. 

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