February 11th, 2015
by Rebecca Dingwell
If all goes as planned, I will be receiving my Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree from the University of King’s College in May. I’m a lucky woman. I know journalism is a difficult field, but I’ve spent the past four years making my skin thicker and transforming the shy seventeen-year-old I used to be. When I began my research last summer, I had a question: Is it tougher for women for make it in journalism?
The answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.
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 interview. “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 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.
A changing landscape
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, a field reporter in Halifax. She says 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 feels there are now more women in journalism thanks to trail blazers such as Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters: “The landscape of it has changed and it changed quickly.”
Looking around the CBC station on Bell Road, 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 says. “You’ve got the man; you’ve got the woman.”
It’s not enough
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 says. “The female host was expected to intro the stories, read the weather and do the traffic.” This may lead to perceived equality, but in reality, it’s unfair. I want to see, hear and read about women doing hard-hitting stories. I have no female Woodward and Bernstein to inspire me. Why?
Torrens still works the media, 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 doesn’t just apply to women. “If you belong to a group where you have to deal with overt or covert discrimination,” says Torrens, “you have to figure out a way to operate in this world.”
She’s right. I can’t think of a single prominent journalist who identifies as trans*. I can only think of two who identify as LGBTQ+ at all—Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow. Not to mention, they’re both white.
On the other hand, 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 naturalised that men are leaders and women are not.”
In the Summer 2014 cover story for Nieman Reports, Anna Griffin found the number of women leading newsrooms in the US 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 US 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 says. Linda Kay, 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 says. “The situation reverses when you get into the newsroom.”
Women opt out of the journalism profession more often than men. Why?
“I don’t think there is outright prejudice,” Kay says. “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 their children, a demanding career can be even more of a challenge while raising a baby. A Ryerson Journalism Research Centre report (2011) shows most female reporters in Canada are not mothers. However, most male reporters are fathers.
Kay recalls leaving her full-time job to freelance after having a child. In the newsroom, her schedule depended on the news they assigned her. “Basically, you’re at the whim of the story,” says 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 nation’s top three newspapers 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 for Halifax’s 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 says. Johns has written for the Halifax alt-weekly for ten 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. “I feel like maybe I’ve created a bubble for myself,” Johns says, “but I still come across [sexism].”
Start-ups: a chance to start over?
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. Politico is an exception, with Susan Glasser at the helm—but the staff still has an overwhelming white majority.
Nate Silver is the editor-in-chief for FiveThirtyEight, which publishes articles based on data. In an interview for New York magazine, Silver said 85 percent of applications received by FiveThirtyEight are from men. Lipinski says blaming the applicant pool causes a cyclical problem. “Women look at those organizations and they don’t see themselves reflected there,” says Lipinski. “It doesn’t seem inviting.” These days, 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.
The dangers of being a female journalist
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. Currently 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 says 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 over a century.
A long road
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 (CWPC). The CWPC was founded by women who were sent to cover the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis – even before women could vote. Kay knows how difficult things were for female journalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. “[Those women] were segregated in the newsroom,” says 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,” says Kay. She still believes there is “a fight going on” for women in news media.
Kay says she was discouraged to see her female students shy away from the word “feminist.” Winning the fight depends on the young women studying journalism today. “I was stunned,” she says. “They didn’t realize they’re going to have to stand up for themselves.”
“Feminist” is a loaded term. I think many successful women (or women who want to be successful) are afraid to use it. They want people to know they’ve made their way in the world because of their own hard work, not because of some sort of affirmative action. But feminism isn’t just about standing up for yourself. It’s about standing up for those who don’t have a voice – whether that’s due to race, ability, class, or gender identity.
Until we have newsrooms that are diverse in all aspects, the way we present news will never be representative of our audiences.
Rebecca Dingwell was born and raised in the Halifax area in Nova Scotia. Currently, she’s on her way to finishing her Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree at the University of King’s College. Rebecca has an interest in writing crime and human interest stories, and enjoys writing articles which raise awareness about mental health, animal welfare and feminism. She’s also an avid baker, creative writer, geek and pet lover. When she’s not writing, she’s probably reading.