Globally, things are better, but not much.
Howard University’s Professor Caroline Byerly used a sample of almost 2000 editorial and administrative to conclude that in 2011 36.1 per cent of the world’s journalists are women. Her figures reveal that women’s participation in management roles might be creeping upward, now to 26 per cent of governing roles and 27 per cent of top management jobs around the globe in 2011, but that is still just one quarter of the whole.
Dr Louise North’s published research – and my rather unacademic Facebook foray – also show that the news industry in Australia continues to embody what she described in her academic paper as a “blokey and ego-driven” culture that’s for the most part ignored – and systemic and ongoing gender (and race) inequity permeates the workforce.
This was probably best illustrated several months ago when one of Australia’s best known female TV journalists and presenters wrote an excoriating speech which she titled ‘Dear Mr Sexist’. Driven to fury and what she described as an inferno in her belly, Tracey Spicer recounted the male excutive that shouted across the newsroom at her: “I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse.” And the radio executive, who, during a job interview said: “There’s a reason why you don’t hear women on commercial talkback radio. No-one wants to hear the whiney sound of a female voice. Us blokes get enough nagging at home!” And then there was the station manager who came down after her first night news reading, saying: “You need to stick your tits out more.” On and on it went, the executive who pointed at her forehead wrinkles and said it was time to give the youngsters a go, the sacking by email just after she had given birth to her second child (fought in court and won) and a litany of other stories so awful, you would be hard pressed to make them up.
Tracey Spicer’s experience reminded me of the editor who, on hearing I had been appointed Europe correspondent, pointed at my eyes and said: ” …‘a spell in the northern hemisphere out of the Australian sun will do your face wrinkles a world of good.” I hate to tell you but this one came from a woman.
During her 2012 research on women and newsroom culture, Dr North interviewed 600 female journalists in Australia – the biggest study of its kind. Her findings revealed that a staggering 57.3 per cent had been sexually harassed in the workplace, with the majority reporting that this had happened within the last five years. North found the problem infected all newsrooms although the commercial TV sector seemed to have higher rates than newspaper newsrooms or the national broadcaster.
Ironically, all this research has emerged around the time that Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, rebelled with such spirit against the mysoginistic culture she perceives both in the Parliament and among the media that report politics. I’m sure few of you would have missed that speech but you might not know that it went viral on Youtube globally, sparking headlines in Europe, America and the developing world but was virtually ignored by the Parliamentary reporters until they realised their blunder.
Which brings me back, sadly, to where I began – my informal ask-around for anecdotes about being a woman in a modern newsroom.
In a moment of odd serendipity, about 24 hours after I posted a request for my colleagues’ observations, a debate exploded about The Sydney Morning Herald‘s rebrand and renaming of what was previously called the ‘Daily Life’ section into ‘Women’s Perspective’ while the more masculine sections were rebadged ‘Executive Style’ – as if women can’t be executives. This move outraged not just the paper’s readers but the section’s editor herself who risked her job and broke ranks to blog about her own internal arguments against the name change with the all male editorial team. Hundreds of women tweeted and wrote comments along these lines: “Do you think it could have even been possible for you to decide on a more patronising tactic to show exactly which sections of the newspaper you think matter and which don’t?”
In this case, the men were forced to capitulate and the sections returned to its less offensive name.
While all this was going on, my colleagues started to email me: the first one arrived from an Australian colleague I worked with in Sydney, who spent a decade in the Middle East in Jerusalem and is now a well known TV face in Europe. She is also married to a reporter and described her conversation with an editor, requesting a payrise: “The editor looked at me outraged and said, what?! I have just given your husband a rise.”
Another told of internal 2012 research quietly testing suspicions that a new section editor was commissioning only men to write cover stories and this was then checked against by lines. “In a year or so of his editing that section there were zero cover stories from women, 100% from men,” my colleague wrote. “When we confronted him, he seemed genuinely shocked and seemed not to realize he had done this. We figured that perhaps it was personality related – he was not comfortable talking to women. . .net result was the same though. Zero result for us women”.
Another, currently stationed in the Middle East, described the first words of a new chief of staff as she reported back about a story: “ So luv, is it a ball-tearer or a blue-veiner?” She was quck to add that despite this, he turned out to be a “good bloke”. Another described a particular editor’s penchant for coming up to her and the younger women on staff and massaging shoulders while looking over copy. One remembers, as a young cadet, being warned by the trainee counselor that part of working in a newsroom was playing “the game” after she raised feeling uncomfortable with this behaviour.
The worst anecdotes, just as Dr North reported, came from colleagues in commercial TV newsrooms, with some truly shocking me. In one case, a 30 something reporter, winner of a recent prize in investigative reporting, told me how she asked privately not to work with a particular producer due to his insistent lewd comments and behaviour. She asked her superiors that her name not be mentioned as she did not want to make a formal complaint. The man was not only told of her complaint but he then turned the tables on her warning colleagues and cameramen against her and making her work life impossible. She has now moved and is working at the public broadcaster. Another described standing open mouthed as an executive, in his late fifties, stood beside her working his way through a list of pretty much every older woman in Australian TV journalism. With some, he asked rhetorically why they hadn’t just stepped aside, others he observed he felt sorry for them, still others he said blatantly that they were too old and shouldn’t be on TV. It was her second day on the job and she chose, like so many of us, to say nothing.
The stories keep coming in.
I haven’t painted a particularly pretty picture although all of us – young and older – agree that it’s much, much better than even ten years ago. In Australia, Julia Gillard’s feisty diatribe against sexism appears to have touched a nerve and many of you might have read about the extraordinary social media campaign #destroythejoint that harnessed collective female anger against a particularly mysoginistic radio host – and the subsequent loss of millions in advertising as commercial sponsors realised the dollar effect of women scorned.
And so, I leave the last words to one of my youngest colleagues – a TV reporter – and a colleague at the other end of the totem pole, one of the few very senior women media executives in Australia. The youngest put it this way: “My perception of ‘this day and age’ is that it is better, much better. Less overt stuff goes on and most men are much, much better in the workplace than they were.” But, as we all know – and researcher Dr Louise North has confirmed – when it does go on, unfortunately, too many women are finding that it still doesn’t pay to rock the boat.
My executive colleague was succinct in her verdict and I quote her email directly: “I asked all my most senior colleagues what a pair of testicles would mean to them in this industry. They all answered, without bitterness or rancour that being male would mean a minimum of $50,000 a year to them. And these women included a Sunday newspaper editor, an investigative editor, a chief sub editor, a magazine editor, Most were on well above the 140,000 range – so this was a significant proportion of salary.”
“The sad thing,” reported my friend, “is that nobody was ANGRY. They all answered with a kind of quiet, tired acceptance of fact.”
Paola Totaro (c) March 2013
Paola Totaro is a journalist who lives in London and worked with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne, Australia, before coming to the United Kingdom as European Correspondent. She studied at the University of Sydney and the University of New England in Australia, and is presently enrolled in an MA (Culture & Criticism) at the University of the Arts, London. She includes French and Italian amongst her languages, and lists her hometown as Naples, Italy.
Caroline Byerly, 2011, pp. 9, 219
Louise North, 2009
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