Women in journalism: closer, but not equal
Gains, struggles mark newsroom search for equality
March 25, 2015, 2:16 pm ADTLast Updated: February 21, 2019, 10:15 am
The conversation has recently come up in Nieman Reports, the Toronto Star, the Economist and other publications. While the topic isn’t entirely new, it is explored more frequently since Jill Abramson’s dismissal as editor-in-chief of the New York Times in May 2014.
Are women still at a disadvantage in journalism?
Louise North, author of The Gendered Newsroom, is the senior research fellow in journalism at Deakin University in Australia.
“If it is mostly men who decide and shape news then we are seeing the world through the values and views of men,” North said in an email. “News created by both men and women will reflect the differences and similarities of the audience.”
It is mostly men who the shape the news, according to The Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media (2010). Men hold close to two-thirds of the jobs in journalism in the world – a ratio that has hardly budged since 1999. This report was released by the International Women’s Media Foundation. According to its study, the gap is wider when it comes to top management positions, with men holding 73 percent.
The report noted Canada as one of the countries in which the glass ceiling – “an invisible but nonetheless real barrier that women encounter” – is present. Here, women are less likely to ascend to top management positions, such as editor-in-chief.
Colleen Jones says her personal experiences don’t match the statistics. The ratio of men to women, she says, seems to be half-and-half.
“For as long as I’ve worked (at CBC), women were encouraged, nurtured, mentored in literally every part of the organization,” says Jones.
Jones is a field reporter in Halifax. She said seeing female producers, editors and camera operators in her workplace made her feel she wasn’t alone. “I’d like to think that sex is almost an invisible thing.”
Jones recalls starting her work with ATV in 1984, when having a woman cover sports was still rare. Jones was a sports anchor on ATV’s late night news.
“They really took a risk and put me on air,” she said.
Jones feels there are now more women in journalism thanks to trailblazers such as Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.
“The landscape of it has changed and it changed quickly.”
Looking around the Halifax CBC you can see the truth of Jones’ words. She hurries from room to room like a worker bee, editing her video and recording voice-overs. The cubicles are filled with both men and women.
Jones has seen the same equality in other countries. She remembers being in Beijing for the Olympics and seeing a male and female anchor on Chinese television.
“It’s almost a stereotype everywhere you go,” Jones said. “You’ve got the man, you’ve got the woman.”
Jackie Torrens doesn’t believe the presence of a woman on air is enough. Torrens says she used to guest host a morning radio show with a “very 1950s” format.
“The male host would do the interviews and the real journalism,” Torrens said. “The female host was expected to intro the stories, read the weather and do the traffic.”
Torrens still works in journalism, including radio and documentary. She has continued to experience sexism from colleagues while working on both creative and non-fiction pieces. “I’ve constantly had the experience where someone is trying to say that what I write is the woman’s story.
“I don’t write women’s stories,” says Torrens. “I write human stories.”
This struggle doesn’t just apply to women.
“If you belong to a group where you have to deal with overt or covert discrimination,” said Torrens, “you have to figure out a way to operate in this world.”
Women do operate in the journalism world. They just don’t often rise in the ranks. Louise North of Deakin University believes this is a problem.
“If women dominated decision-making roles in newsrooms all over the world, do you think there would be an outcry of a pink ghetto? Most would say women can’t speak for men,” says North. “But when men dominate decision-making roles it’s almost seen as so what? It becomes naturalized that men are leaders and women are not.”
In the Summer 2014 cover story of Nieman Reports, Anna Griffin found the number of women leading newsrooms in the U.S. is low for newspapers and broadcast organizations.
This isn’t due to a lack of qualified women. For decades, young women in Western countries have been enrolling in journalism programs as much as or more so than their male counterparts. “The percentage of women steadily declines after that,” Griffin wrote.
Griffin’s report said women make up over half of journalism graduates in the U.S. They represent 35 percent of newspaper supervisors in the country, 31 percent of TV news directors and 23 percent of radio news directors in the country.
To get promoted in any job, a worker needs to stay at one place long enough to earn it. Women aren’t staying.
“I have several incredibly talented female colleagues who, in the last few years, have opted to go work in PR,” Griffin said.
Linda Kay, a journalism professor at Concordia University, says she sees the trend in Canada, too.
“Two-thirds of our undergraduate students are women. That’s been the case for quite a while,” Kay said. “The situation reverses when you get into the newsroom.”
Women opt out of journalism more often than men. Why?
“I don’t think there is outright prejudice,” Kay said. “A lot of it has to do with the unfriendly atmosphere of a newsroom … when it comes to family.”
Since women are often the primary caregivers of children, a demanding career can be a challenge while raising a baby. A Ryerson Journalism Research Centre report (2011) shows most female reporters in Canada are not mothers. Less than a third of male reporters are childless.
Kay recalls leaving her full-time job to freelance after having a child. In the newsroom, her schedule had depended on the news they assigned her.
“Basically, you’re at the whim of the story,” said Kay. This is especially true when working on investigative or “hard news” pieces.
Men do the bulk of reporting on hard news, including politics. They also tend to dominate the opinion section. According to the Women’s Media Center report, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014, the top three newspapers in the U.S. have four times as many male opinion writers as female.
“Men often have an easier time being vocal,” says Stephanie Johns. “You’re more likely to be believed. You’re less likely to be attacked.”
Johns reflects on her career while sitting in the boardroom of the Coast.
“Some people watch a woman do something that they think is a man’s job and they look at you like you’re a dog doing tricks,” she said. Johns has written for the Halifax alt-weekly for 10 years, and has held the position of arts editor for three.
The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with male colleagues, Johns says. Some men don’t respond well to be interviewed by a woman. “They don’t take you seriously,” she says. “That is the crux of the thing.”
She has to remind them: “I’m a professional — I know what I’m doing.”
Johns says the Coast has employed at least as many women as men since she started working there. Currently, women are the majority in full-time positions.
Johns feels privileged in her workplace. “I feel like maybe I’ve created a bubble for myself,” Johns said, “but I still come across (sexism).”
Hilary Beaumont, a local freelancer, has experienced similar situations.
“Older men that I was interviewing tended to view me as either their daughter,” says Beaumont, “or an object.”
As journalism enters its digital age, start-ups are becoming more popular. There is an opportunity for progress. Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, says progress isn’t happening.
“As I looked at (the start-ups),” says Lipinski, “what I saw were organizations where people were recreating a lot of the gender imbalances that were increasingly common in the (non-digital) newsrooms.”
Buzzfeed, FiveThirtyEight and Vox are just a few examples.
Nate Silver is editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, which publishes articles based on data. In an interview with New York magazine, Silver said 85 percent of applications received by FiveThirtyEight are from men.
Lipinski said blaming the applicant pool causes a cyclical problem.
“Women look at those organizations and they don’t see themselves reflected there,” said Lipinski. “It doesn’t seem inviting.”
Lipinski acknowledges problems for women are widespread in the professional world. “I do think what is notable in the journalistic context is how much backsliding there’s been,” she said.
In 2004, 10 of the 25 biggest U.S. dailies were led by women. By 2014, the number of female leaders has dropped to three. Lipinski doesn’t believe the difficulties of the industry itself are to blame.
“If it were solely that (problem),” said Lipinski. “… you would see the relative proportions of men to women about the same as they were 10 years ago.”
Almost any news organization hoping to survive has an online aspect. The internet can be a scary place for female journalists and bloggers who share their opinions publicly.
Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff addressed the problem in her article, A Chilling Effect: The Oppression and Silencing of Women Journalists and Bloggers Worldwide (2007). The piece was published in Off Our Backs, a women’s news journal.
“Any woman journalist who speaks out steadfastly and strongly … can expect to be harassed and attacked online and offline,” Seelhoff wrote. “She will be called shrill and strident, or she will be threatened in ways that are sexual.”
Amanda Hess is familiar with the situation. A reporter for Slate, Hess got her first job as a reporter for an alt-weekly in Washington D.C. Hess has read negative comments on her blog and news stories for years.
In 2009, things took a more serious turn when she began receiving harassment and threats from a man she refers to as her “cyberstalker.”
“A source of mine threatened to rape me and kept calling me,” says Hess, “saying that he was going to come to my office and attack my editor as well.”
Hess said she was heartened by the way her male editors supported her. She recounted her experiences of harassment in an article last winter: Why women aren’t welcome on the internet.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was stalked by a man who followed her to hotels where she stayed. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian left her home to stay with friends after receiving multiple threats.
Female journalists face challenges during work and at home. Despite these difficulties, women have made their mark in journalism for more than a century.
Until May 2014, a woman had never held an editor-in-chief position at a national newspaper in Canada. That changed when Anne Marie Owens took the reins at the National Post.
“Checking off that box is important,” Owens told the Post. “Of course, these things are incremental, but they’re symbolic as well.”
In 2012, Professor Linda Kay wrote a book on the Canadian Women’s Press Club. The Club was founded by women sent to cover the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis – before women could vote.
Kay knows how difficult things were for female journalists at the beginning of the 20th century. “(Those women) were segregated in the newsroom,” said Kay. “That lasted until the ‘50s.”
Women and men did not even share office areas.
“I think there’s been a tremendous amount of progress,” Kay said. She still believes there is “a fight going on” for women in news media.
Kay said she was discouraged to see female students shy away from the word “feminist.”
“I was stunned,” she said. “They didn’t realize they’re going to have to stand up for themselves.”
Editor's Note: This story was reported and written by Oct. 17, 2014.