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22 May 2013

“If you want to write, go someplace else“: Gender discrimination and the media

There are more women in the media than ever before, but a glass ceiling still looms above us.

By rebecca suner

“If you want to write, go someplace else.” These were the words Judy Gingold was greeted with upon beginning her employment at Newsweek. In the late 60s, sexism was the norm in most newsrooms. Judy became a researcher, and like the other women at the magazine, she was expected to do little more than delivering the mail and fact-checking the articles of her male colleagues. Out of fifty writers, only one was female.

In the years that followed, things have changed dramatically for women in journalism. In 1970, while Judy and 45 other women of Newsweek successfully sued their bosses over gender discrimination, the UK Parliament was passing the Equal Pay Act, effectively outlawing differences between sexes in treatment and salary at work.

But forty years later, a glass ceiling still hangs above women’s ambitions and careers in journalism.

At university level, women outnumber male students across journalism courses. At City University, where Professor Suzanne Franks directs the undergraduate journalism degree, there are twice more women than men enrolled this year across all media-related courses.

“There is an increasingly female cohort at the level of studying journalism, which is a pattern that has increased over the years,” notes Franks, who has been conducting research into gender discrimination and the media. “But still the question is: where do they all go?”

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An argument Franks has heard time and time again, is that we would need to wait to see what proportion of female graduates end up landing in senior positions. But to the professor, this justification is unacceptable: “That sort of passivity to sit back for it to gently work its way through the system, this is just not the way things happen.”

A quick glance at the evidence submitted at the Leveson inquiry clearly indicates that the media industry remains, indeed, a male-dominated environment. Of the 193 media-related witnesses called to testify, only 23 were female.

Research carried out by the Women in Journalism Institute in 2011 drew a damning picture, with men occupying 75 per cent of journalist positions in national newspapers. The Independent scored one of the worst scores with just a sixth of its journalists female and 90 per cent of its front-page stories written by men.

Top editorial positions also tend to go to men: at The Guardian, one of the most ‘equal’ employers, the 89 male editors still outnumber the 69 female ones.

But discrimination, as Franks explains, doesn’t only happen on a ‘vertical’ level – according to hierarchy: “There is horizontal segregation too, where women are told ‘you’ll be doing the fashion and the makeup and the beauty’ and men will be doing the politics or the sport.”

And again, men also tend to dominate in these sectors: they account for half of lifestyle journalists and 70 per cent of art reporters. In comparison, only 4 per cent of women make it as sports journalists.

Women seem to have it more difficult, especially in times of economic hardship, as Lena Calvert, the equality officer at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), explains: “All our members are being confronted by job cuts and those that remain suffer in terms of long hours and stress.

“If you have caring responsibilities, this is made doubly hard as many employers are revisiting their agreements on flexible working and some have cut their staff numbers so much it makes it hard to negotiate new agreements on work/life balance.”

Research by the House of Commons Library show that middle-aged women have been hit the hardest by unemployment since the beginning of the recession. In the media, and in particular in broadcasting, this issue is supplemented by widespread ageism.

“Women members have indicated that they see older female colleagues marginalised,” reports Lena Calvert. 

The sacking of Miriam O’Reilly, a BBC presenter, brought light to the issue as she won her ageism case against the Corporation. But the sexism claim was not upheld.

For Suzanne Franks, ageism and sexism go hand in hand: “The interesting thing to look at is if it happens to older men in journalism – and it doesn’t.”

Lena Calvert notes that sexism runs deep in society: “If you consider that it was really only in the 1970s when the second wave of feminism saw women starting to campaign on equal pay, equal rights, it could be argued that historically that is quite a short amount of time.”

Jean Chalaby, a professor in Sociology, compares society’s evolution to a big old ship: “They have a power of inertia. If society were invented today it would certainly be a much more equal one.”

When presented with the lawsuit in 1970, Newsweek’s editor-in-chief replied: “The fact that most researchers at Newsweek are women and that virtually all writers are men, stems from a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.”

As the women of Newsweek sued their bosses, they probably did not imagine how much they would challenge gender discrimination in the media. Lynn Povich, who recounts the story of the lawsuit in a book, “The Good Girls Revolt”, became the first female senior editor at the magazine.

But almost half a decade later, the big old ships of sexism still sail leisurely – it’s time to shake things up again.