“She enters the radio field feeling that there is a great chance for her to show the world at large that no science or business is too complex for the feminine ambition.”*
(Radio World magazine, 1922)
History records that, from the very advent of radio, women have had a strong involvement in the development of the medium. When Reginald Fessenden made what is recognized as probably the first wireless broadcast of music and voice in December, 1906, his wife and her best friend were key partners in the event. Reports from the time indicate that, apart from the transmission of the inventor’s own violin performance and a recording of Handel’s Largo, this ground-breaking radio broadcast also included the voices of Helen Fessenden and her friend singing Christmas songs.
The 1920s saw an exponential growth in radio worldwide, with amateurs on every continent developing wireless equipment and establishing listening clubs or societies. In Ceylon, musical broadcasts, said to be the first in Asia, were carried out in 1923, while enthusiasts in India, Malaya, China, Japan and elsewhere also began experimenting. Across Europe, Latin America and the Pacific, wireless broadcasting was entering its ‘golden age’. From the outset, women were involved. KDKA in Pittsburgh, USA which claims to be the ‘Pioneer broadcasting station of the world’ (on-air in November, 1920), included two women in its inaugural senior management team, a Director of its Home Service and another managing one of its key studios. In 1922, WIAE in Iowa, USA became the first station owned and operated by a woman. Radio reached out to encourage young men and women alike to become involved in its future, one popular series of books in the 1920s being The Radio Girls.
As radio broadcasting developed across the globe it became more structured in its form, with commercial and government entities entering the arena and managing its growth. Organizations such as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. (later to be a Corporation) developed as early as 1922 and served as a model for many other parts of the world. However, these new entities brought with them the inequalities of employment practices common at the time and the once seemingly strong place of women began to slip backwards. With few women in senior positions in industry, commerce or government, it was, unfortunately, probably inevitable that such gender inequities should flow through to broadcasting. Men dominated Boards and management positions and brought with them elitist attitudes and hiring practices. The expression ‘jobs for the boys’ was a truism. Where opportunities in radio for women did exist, these were usually in secretarial roles or as on-air presenters of Women’s Hour sessions and similarly gender focused ‘soft’ subjects. Few women struggled to the top editorial roles in journalism and ‘hard news’ fields.
Towards the second half of the 20th century, a more widespread global conversation on feminism and women’s role in society began to change the landscape. As the whole issue of equality, diversity and the portrayal of women in radio, television, film and other popular culture forms became mainstream, slow but gradual reform came into view. The role of the international community, led by agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF and UNIFEM (now UN Women), became critical to this effort and the proclamation of the first International Women’s Year in 1975, followed by the UN Decade of Women (1976-85), gave huge impetus to the task. With the initiation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the agenda was firmly in public view and pressure was on governments to initiate proactive gender policies. NGOs, such as the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) and regional broadcasting unions and training bodies took up the challenge. One, the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) appointed its first female President in 1988, while the intergovernmental Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), with UNESCO and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) funding assistance, brought together a team of women media and gender professionals to develop a pioneering audio-visual training kit Into Focus: Changing Media Images of Women in Asia.
As the notion of gender mainstreaming took hold, more women moved into senior roles in radio across the world although, for many, the difficulties in reaching the heights of their profession were formidable. Positive initiatives, such as UNESCO’sWomen Make the News project, have reinforced the need for quicker and more visible change, but stereotypical views continue to be a hindrance. As an author recently noted in an article on media and gender in Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC)’s Media Asia journal “Women have been contributing hugely to the nation’s development and economic growth […] but the patriarchal underpinnings of the society still hinder women’s equal treatment”.
The recent formulation of UNESCO’s Gender-Sensitive Indicators for Media (GSIM)sets benchmarks for employers who can, no longer, claim ignorance of the need to promote inclusiveness and equality within the workforce. An example of what women can achieve in equality against the odds, even in the most conflict-wracked society, was the establishment, with UNESCO support, of the first Voice of Afghan Womencommunity FM radio station in Kabul on International Women’s Day in 2003. Proactive diversity policies are effective, as evidenced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which, in 2010, achieved the goal of equal numbers of men and women employees in the organization. A year later, the ruling ABC Board met the same objective, as did the senior executive echelon in 2012.
As radio broadcasting reaches its second century, the time is long past for inaction on diversity and equality for half the population. In the words of a pioneer back in 1923 who used her technical skills to construct her own radio receiver “Just because the electron tube eliminates nearly half the radio impulses is no reason why the technicalities of radio should eliminate one-half the people who are interested in it- not when that half happens to be the women”**.
- Martin Hadlow
*”A Society lady””
‘Radio World’ magazine
17th June, 1922 (Vol I, No. 12, p.15, RadioWorld Co, NY).
** Mrs. Florence Bethman
“A Woman Who Makes Receiving Sets”
‘Radio Broadcast’ magazine
November, 1923 (Vol IV, pp.30-33, Doubleday, Page & Co, NY).