Does This Prove The Media Has A Problem With Unconscious Bias?

I lost a £50 bet last week and I must say that I couldn’t be happier. I have Hyeonseo Lee to thank. Now 36, she’s a bestselling author, inspirational speaker and tireless campaigner for the plight of North Koreans. Aged 17 she made a daring escape from her home there, across China and finally into the welcoming arms of South Korea. More importantly, for my purposes, she’s a woman.

She’s also the latest interview subject for the Financial Times’s much-lauded Lunch With slot on Saturday, a section of the newspaper which I’ve spent some time looking at, sharing my research with the FT’s Editor Lionel Barber. He’s yet to respond to my tweets.

What I mentioned to him was my surprise that, from the past 100 weeks, Lee is only the 18th woman to be granted a space in that prestigious weekend slot, a page that goes to the heart of the FT’s unique identity. I placed a bet with another FT-watcher this week that the next subject would be another man – I’m glad I lost.

Anyway, those 18 include just two businesswomen – tech pioneer Susan Wojcicki and banker Ariane de Rothschild. Most of the others are connected to the media and arts worlds.

One can’t draw meaningful insight from taking the pulse of a single page in a huge six-day a week operation, yet it’s also a stark reminder that the FT is deliberately a reflection of its readers. Wealthy, metropolitan, successful, intelligent, tasteful, powerful…and male.

I’m not suggesting the FT is sexist. Of course it isn’t. An enlightened, equal opportunities employer it boasts excellent female journalists and columnists: Gillian Tett, Lucy Kellaway, Merryn Somerset Webb, Jancis Robinson, Kathleen Baird Murray, Sarah Gordon and many more

But if the FT is meant to represent the interests and characters of its readers, I wonder if perhaps it sometimes unconsciously apes the gender bias that so afflicts the financial and corporate worlds.

For instance, Helena Morrissey, the former CEO of Newton Investment Management and future board member of Legal & General, formed the 30% Club which has been at the forefront of rebalancing the deeply ingrained sexual discrepancy among Britain’s top companies. It campaigns for women to take up 30% of board positions at the country’s top firms.

She was once quoted in the FT thus: ‘A lot of progress has been made but I often feel very isolated. We haven’t got true inclusion until women feel they don’t have to be honorary men.’

In fact, the same newspaper recently castigated its smartly-suited audience when it revealed that, shockingly, just a sixth of senior executives at the largest listed British companies are women and that 52 FTSE 350 companies have no women on their executive committees. And when Emma Walmsley becomes GSK’s new CEO this year, she will be only the seventh woman running a FTSE 100 company.

So, still some work to be done there. Yet almost exactly the same percentage of women have been profiled in the Lunch With slot in a little under two years.

I know very few FT journalists personally but they and Mr Barber do a fantastic job – as a small business owner and consultant, it’s become an essential read of my day. I wonder though if they are aware of any unconscious bias that may exist there. After all, women have lunch too, and they don’t all work in the arts.

Because of their status, the FT and its editor should be – indeed often are – at the forefront of battling sexism and the city. However, I can’t help returning to that Helena Morrissey quote. Not about under-representation, we all agree about that. But about not being seen as ‘honorary men’. The FT – indeed all newspapers – can’t write about women just because they’re women. They need to be interesting, have achieved something and be deserving of their moment in the lunchtime spotlight.

Just a guess, but I’m pretty sure that such people represent more than one in six of the global population.

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