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How bad is sexism in newsrooms?

Candice Chung
Published: January 29, 2013 - 9:39AM

Take a look at any journalism lecture in Australia, and chances are you’ll find that female students tend to dominate the class – at least in numbers. But a strange thing happens once you step outside the classroom. For intrepid students, the penny often drops in a newsroom internship – where, like a 3D Infographic, they first witness the astounding flip in the gender split.

It’s a sobering moment for many. And not just because of the cut-throat competition for a paid job at the end of their degrees.  For the first time, these aspiring female reporters will also get a taste of the kind of news stories they’re likely to be assigned (often lifestyle, ‘colour’ pieces); and  what it’s like to pitch a story in front of a testosterone charged audience, wondering whether anyone would take their ideas seriously.

While it’s easy to dismiss these as rookie concerns, statistics paint a different reality.  A new study – the first of its kind in 16 years – surveyed 577 female journalists across all media platforms in Australia and found that there is still widespread gender discrimination in our newsrooms.

The report builds on earlier findings from the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ), which revealed significant issues around equal opportunity in promotion, job segregation, sexual harassment, and childcare. Following the release of the report in 1996, a total of seven recommendations were made to the industry union to “acknowledge the special problems faced by women journalists” – none were implemented.

Louise North, senior lecturer in journalism at Monash University and the author of the new nationwide study, found that the mainstream news media in Australia are still dominated by men at almost every level today. “Women journalists are typically located en masse in low-paid, low-status positions, struggling to attain real influence in editorial decision making roles across all media platforms,” writes North.

The problem is most pronounced at the top. As at August 2012, not one woman is entrusted with the editing role in a daily edition across the nation’s 21 metropolitan newspapers. Only three women currently edit a weekend paper.

What’s more, half of the 577 female journalists surveyed had never been promoted – even though the majority of respondents have been in their current roles for anything from 4-20 years.  

Can we trace this back purely to a boy’s club culture? Or is something else amiss here? After all, if the modern workplace is founded on a delicate ecosystem of meritocracy, then surely the most talented reporters will prevail. Why on earth wouldn’t an editor promote female journalists if they manage to keep turning out quality pieces?

The short answer, according to North’s findings, is that female reporters are less likely to be allocated the kinds of stories that make it to page one. More than half of the survey respondents (57.3 percent) agree that the more coveted news areas – such as politics and sports – tend to be assigned to male reporters, with female journalists being pigeon holed in what’s traditionally seen as lady rounds like “women’s issues, fashion, health, the arts and education.”

And since most promotions are decided on a subjective basis by editors, with little to no “formal performance review”, it’s easy to see why (male) reporters with ‘meatier rounds’ are more likely to rise through the ranks.  It’s a worrying trend – and one that is echoed globally. We only need to look at the 2012 UK study on front page bylines  (78 percent male versus 22 percent female) conducted by Women in Journalism, to get a glimpse of the gender bias in action.

The most staggering finding in North’s survey, however, is the rising problem of sexual harassment in Australian newsrooms. In fact, more Australian female journalists have experienced sexual harassment compared to 16 years ago, with 57.3 percent of all respondents having been experienced “objectionable remarks or behaviour” from a male colleague or manager in a senior position.

An overwhelming 87.2 percent of the women affected chose not to report the incidents – citing “fear of victimisation” or that “there are no benefits in doing so”. Depressingly, the survey also indicates that “majority of respondents believe sexual harassment is an accepted part of their organisation’s culture and [is] tolerated in the workplace” – and these are smart women who make a living from being vocal.  

As North points out, for an industry that “shines light on gender inequity in other occupation”,  the media has failed miserably at investigating their own gender issues.

No one is expecting to wipe out sexism in newsrooms overnight. But isn’t it time we stop turning a blind eye to the inequity faced by working women – especially those whose voices are crucial in shaping the way we see world?  


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