Spare a thought for media woman. Considered either too boring to reach the top or too flashy to be taken seriously, she is always on the rise but never entirely risen. Featured an average of once a year in a "women breaking through the glass ceiling" feature, media woman is invariably described as pushy and ambitious, qualities deemed reprehensible in her, although entirely natural to her male colleagues. On the face of it, women are the beneficiaries of change in newspapers and broadcasting. The best are promoted fast and can enjoy a higher profile at a younger age. As the lobby group Women in Journalism found when it tracked women's salaries, they receive an initial spurt of financial reward that puts them ahead of men in the early years of their career. In their mid-thirties, however, they reach a plateau, while the men storm ahead.
Received wisdom has it that this is due to opting out or down-shifting while they have children and lose interest in battling for position at work. But with or without the added strain of children, the primary hurdle remains the notion that it is perfectly normal to have a room full of 15 or so senior staff at the morning conference to decide the day's agenda in which only one or two chairs will be occupied by women.
We used to think that, as the rudiments of feminism became widely accepted, fixed attitudes about the roles of men and women would change naturally. We were wrong. A generation of men who are products of the 1960s, are generally liberal and tolerant in outlook and would never consider themselves as sexist is not much better at championing women at work. How can they feel at ease in working environments where so few female colleagues influence the real decisions? The truth is that they do feel happy as things are, otherwise they would change them.
Even the highest-profile women in newspapers and television are often delivery systems for someone else's ideas. Or, as one executive responded to a female journalist's suggestion on how to cover a news story: "Just wait until we've decided what to put in the paper and then we'll get back to you."
Of a wide field of candidates for the director-generalship of the BBC, only one woman, Patricia Hodgson, head of policy and planning, was short-listed - and no one thought she had a cat in hell's chance of getting the job. Yes, there is at last a female channel controller, Jane Root at BBC2, and Jenny Abramsky is director of radio. But the important commissions are doled out by men, and the most prolific production companies are run by men.
Few heavyweight presenters are female, in comparison to the number of bright women toiling away at producing and researching the programmes. The emergence of one star, such as Newsnight's Kirsty Wark or Sue MacGregor at the Today programme, is considered to make up in luminosity what news, current affairs and politics lack in numbers of senior women. The coverage of Kosovo was a fascinating example of reversion to the notion of a "male norm". Newsnight, a programme edited by a woman, Sian Kevill, and which is rather better than average at using female reporters and guests, suddenly reverted to a male ghetto. Night after night, the panel of commentators on the state of the war were all male. When I pointed this out to a senior BBC executive, he said, "Oooh, I know. We do try hard, but so few women have an opinion or knowledge of covering wars."
This is abject nonsense. Having covered the earlier stages of Yugoslavia's disintegration, I recall how striking it was that a large number of women, such as the BBC's excellent Cathy Jenkins, Victoria Clark at the Observer and the Guardian's Maggie O'Kane, were reporting on the region's conflicts. The same was true in Chechnya. In the think-tanks and universities, a lot of articulate women are working on foreign affairs and security policy. I have their phone numbers, if the producers are stuck. Editors have come to accept and rather relish having a woman reporter in the war zone. When it comes to thundering out the pros and cons, that's definitely a guy thing. The New Statesman's pronouncements on Kosovo were written overwhelmingly by men - four male writers on the cover was not uncommon. In its current issue, the intellectual journal Prospect managed a mere three women out of 25 contributors worthy of inclusion. Alert readers do notice these things. Earlier this year Rebecca Loncraine, a female academic from Oxford, wrote a blistering letter to the London Review of Books pointing out that in the past 18 months the magazine, which publishes between 12 and 18 pieces an issue, had managed to produce three issues without any female contributors at all, three with one, four with two and only one with five. "Surely in an intellectual environment - academia, published writers and intellectuals generally - this is odd," she wrote. "What is going on?"
Channelled early into becoming feature writers or general columnists, rather than leader-writers or political commentators, women on national newspapers often find themselves stuck in a niche to which they were assigned at 23. Female news editors are few and far between. Only in lobby reporting are young women making really substantial strides into the male elite of political journalism. In serious comment, the underlying assumption is that they are good on post-Diana syndrome but not quite up to discussing neo-liberalism. On the executive greasy pole, a lot more women become deputy editors these days, but they are far less likely than their male colleagues to get the top job. When the tumbrils come to cart the incumbent away, she at first looks like a serious contender for the succession. Then the management will discover (or a male rival point out) that she has "no news experience" or "knows nothing about politics", and the chalice will pass to someone else. My own newspaper group, Independent Newspapers, broke the expected mould in the appointment of Janet Street-Porter to edit the Sunday paper. The chorus of the censorious sang forth to predict her demise before she had even arrived. The Guardian's Isabel Hilton wondered whether Street-Porter's role was to "go to the right parties and keep up a stream of attention-grabbing remarks". Street-Porter would need "a team of mostly male assistants around her to make sure that the paper comes out".
The comments struck me as particularly unfair, given that Street-Porter had not produced a single paper at the time. Technical limitations are not confined to women - I have worked for one editor who could not log on to the computer without someone to press the "execute" key for him. Every editor needs an inner team to help to bring out the paper. Things being as I have outlined, they tend to be male. The middle generation of intellectual female journalists is particularly scathing about a newcomer from a different background. But Hilton is right in one regard. A lot of women who made editor, from Eve Pollard to Rosie Boycott, from Amanda Platell to Janet Street-Porter, are creatures of bright plumage: assertive characters who worked hard at self-promotion. No one expects the men to have to be so famous in order to edit. They can have the charisma of doormats and still succeed. Chart the jobs given to women and you will see a pattern of instability - women are disproportionately likely to be heaved in and out of the helms of papers in times of crisis. In periods of stability, a male editor is considered the normal run of power: women are a gamble, an exception, what one broadsheet editor calls "a high-wire act".
Street-Porter believes that the only way to ensure the more consistent promotion of women is for them to be on appointment boards, choosing candidates. "When I was at L!ve TV, we had a very good and hard-working advertising manager who needed to drop her kids off at school at 8 o'clock, the same time as our first meeting. The management refused to reschedule it, even though there was no reason at all for having it at exactly that time." She believes that only when women penetrate management will such obstacles begin to be removed. "The male office day is all about the number of hours you're seen to be there. Get in early, stand around jangling keys in pocket and talking to other men. Extend the day with a long lunch and leave late. These are routines invented by men to fill up the time at work. Who does the shopping for these blokes? God knows how women manage with children - I had enough trouble squeezing everything in when I had husbands."
Journalists are a notoriously self-obsessed tribe, and one cannot expect the nation to care too much if a bunch of driven women don't get their just deserts. And yet there are signs of the odd consumer revolt. A recent contributor to Radio 4's Feedback listened to successive evenings' output and did not find a single woman presenting a general-interest programme. She took her complaint to James Boyle, the controller of Radio 4, who made the usual pacifying noises about being aware of the problem. But Boyle's nemesis did not want to be placated with good intentions. She simply wanted to hear more people who sounded like her on the air - and not just on Woman's Hour or the consumer programmes. Women in Journalism was founded in 1994 to promote women in the profession. Its members call it "WiJ", to rhyme with "Squidge", which summarises the self-conscious fem-matiness of the undertaking. I'm sure it's good for parties, if you like their sort of party; but the results of all that lobbying and networking are pretty scant. It has failed in its initial aim to get more women into positions where they can really influence change. The proportion of male to female editors hasn't altered since it was launched, nor have the underlying prejudices.
Street-Porter tells me that she recently bumped into the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. "I really admire you," gushed Geri. "You've got girl-power." A friend of Street-Porter interrupted. "You're wrong, Geri. Janet hasn't got girl-power. She's got real power." That's the point. Girl-power is about the appearance of high profile and influence. Women have a lot of that in the media. Real power is something else entirely, and we don't have it yet.
The writer is associate editor of the "Independent"