Note: This article references sexual assault, so if that’s something you’re feeling vulnerable about you could give it a miss or skip to resources at the end.
In early March 2021, we were preparing to leave Australia to permanently move back home to Ireland.
Life was quite hectic. So was the Australian news cycle.
They dominated every news bulletin and current affairs programme that I had on in the background as I packed, or cleaned, or drove in the car.
And I couldn’t understand why it was all making me feel so bad, like a terrible weight of anxiety and panic and emotion bearing down on me at all times.
I was having flashbacks to events that I felt huge discomfort around, and was having to literally calm myself down when I would wake at night, telling myself that I was OK, and I was safe, and my husband was beside me and everything was fine.
Then one podcast that I regularly listen to from a women’s media company completely changed my situation.
One of its presenters began with these words as she approached the subject:
“It’s been an incredibly difficult week for many survivors who are being reminded of what happened to them at every turn and it’s made a lot of women, including myself and many I know, reflect and dredge up things that have happened to them that they may have pushed away or dismissed…
“We are sending our [listeners] a lot of love because we know that it will have been a rough week for all of you too…we see you.”
And for some reason, at 35, that was the first time it clicked with me that I had been sexually assaulted, on a number of occasions.
When you realise you’re not alone
In ways, it’s crazy to me that I hadn’t recognised it before, but for many reasons it’s not; because like all those women in Australia who had experienced similar things, I grew up in a society where lad culture, ignorance around consent, shaming of women and trivialisation of assault was the norm.
They still are in many ways.
But what I found out in that moment, listening to that podcast in the kitchen of a hotel apartment while we were mid-move, was how powerful it is to realise you are not alone in what you’re experiencing.
I found out immediately how having that realisation cuts through so much shame: It’s not just me. It wasn’t my fault.
(And I know sexual assault is just one of many things women can experience that they don’t talk about because they feel they are in some way to blame, some way inadequate and they hold the shame of that close to their chests.)
It hit me that only women who had sat around a table with other women who had similar experiences would have been able to address that story with the empathy and insight that they did. To really give it context.
That’s why women’s media and women in media matter so much.
Their voices, their stories and their expertise need to be a prominent part of the conversation – yet in Ireland today, women account for only one third of all media professionals, according to The Future of Media Commission.
And despite women making up 51% of the population, the 2020 Global Media Monitoring Project found that they make up just 28% of subjects and sources in Irish media.
The figures are slightly higher in the UK, but overall the picture remains the same, and the implications of that, of women’s voices having never been given equal priority, are profound across the board.
In policy-making, in healthcare, in the justice system, in the workplace and in general attitudes toward women and girls.
Dr Dawn Wheatley, Assistant Professor at DCU’s School of Communications, told She Matters that analysis of the 28% of women who were interviewed as subjects and sources showed they were usually spoken to in a domestic capacity, as mothers or carers, and not in a professional capacity.
“That is part of the problem, women are marginalised to domestic roles on the whole – of course there are exceptions – but women are not being presented as decision-makers and influential stakeholders in public affairs.”
‘On the precipice of a revolution’
Despite figures that remain depressing, we know there is great work already being done by talented women who are breaking taboos and getting real about what matters to women: BBC NI’s Marie-Louise Connolly putting menopause on the agenda; broadcaster Síle Seoige fronting the first documentary on Irish TV about miscarriage; and author and podcaster Caroline Foran showing the other side of newborn motherhood where it’s not all smiles and instant connections.
It’s exciting to think how differently women would move through the world if they were stripped of needless shame, and if that world understood and was built for them.
Part of a speech from activist and sexual assault survivor Grace Tame was included in that Mamamia podcast.
The 2021 Australian of the Year said:
“Share your truth, it is your power. One voice, your voice and our collective voices can make a difference.
“We are on the precipice of a revolution whose call to action needs to be heard loud and clear.”
That wasn’t just rhetoric. In the months that followed, the anger generated by those allegations of sexual assault, along with concerns about women’s safety, didn’t dissipate.
Many Australian women had had enough.
Leading the incumbent Coalition government (a traditional alliance between Australia’s conservative parties, the Liberals and the Nationals), prime minister Scott Morrison was told on numerous occasions over the following year that he wasn’t getting it, he wasn’t listening to women.
When the federal election rolled around in May 2022, those same women took their discontent to the ballot box and politics-as-usual was “revolutionised by independent women” who had made gender equality, as well as climate change and anti-corruption, their top priority.
As the ABC reported at the time, women not only secured “stunning victories” as independents in seats that had been considered safe Liberal seats, they made significant gains across the political spectrum.
When the counting was done, a record number of female MPs had been voted in.
But perhaps more importantly than that, wrote Clare Wright in the Guardian, was that the winning candidates had “committed to action on women’s safety, domestic violence prevention, pay equity, universal childcare and other measures which will appreciably benefit the lives of all women”.
The Labor Party won that general election, with research showing that women, under 55s and those with higher levels of education drove their success.
Ignoring women’s experiences, on the other hand, was deemed one of several reasons why the Coalition was defeated.
“One voice, your voice and our collective voices” really can make a difference.