Once, during an embed with American soldiers in the Afghan province of Zabul, a group of children were running after us, laughing and joking. I was weighed down by a bulletproof jacket, helmet and backpack, but through the military sunglasses that kept slipping down my nose I could see them pointing at my red-painted finger nails, trying to make sense of who and what I was. When we eventually took a breather and I removed my helmet, the children – much to their astonishment – could confirm that, yes, I actually was female! One of the more courageous boys plucked up the courage to step forward and ask: “Ma’am, do your parents know you’re here?”
It reminds me of a story I heard about a female colleague, a photojournalist who works in Gaza. It was back in January 2009 during the Israeli Operation Cast Lead and she was still fairly new at the job. There had been a massive airstrike and she was invited by a group of male photographers to join them in their mad rush to the scene. She remembers thinking en-route: “Finally, my all-male peers have accepted me!”
But once they got there and everyone had jumped out of the car, her colleagues just as quickly jumped back in and drove off, leaving her stranded. One of them shouted out of the window: “You’re not welcome here.” The joke was on her.
So just how unwelcome are women in today’s media landscape? Are we talking only about Afghan children and a particular group of Gaza photojournalists, or is there a more mainstream antipathy to women in our newsrooms?
The International Women’s Media Foundation, in the first study of its kind, recently surveyed 500 media organisations across 59 countries and found that women hold only 27% of top management positions. The average percentage of women journalists stands at 38%, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Men hold 60% of jobs at newspapers, write 80% of newspaper op-eds, and get far more bylines than their female counterparts, despite the fact that women make up some 76% of recent journalism graduates.
Le Monde newspaper surveyed that women are cited seven times less often as sources than men. Then, 81% of experts and 82% of spokespeople who appear in the news are male, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project 2010 in its survey of 42 countries. Women’s lives, it seems, are still the untold story in today’s media.
One of the last bastions of male dominance in journalism is war reporting. Men overwhelmingly fill the ranks of war reporters, even though most of the victims are women and children. The biggest problem with sending women to conflict zones is that they have safety and health concerns not shared by their male colleagues, such as sexual harassment and rape. The issue is compounded because of the secrecy around sexual assaults so it’s hard to judge their frequency. Estimates, however, suggest that at least half of female journalists have been sexually harassed, assaulted or experienced some kind of violence on the job.
As women, we are afraid to tell our bosses – we are afraid of not being seen as tough enough for the job and don’t want to be pulled off an assignment because we’re “not up to it”.
That’s why CBS reporter Lara Logan’s case was so important. After Logan’s attack in February 2011, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement urging news organisations not to send women to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Just a few hours later, following widespread condemnation, they amended it only to say that “security should be paramount”.
I have spent countless hours reporting from Tahrir Square and some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots and it is my firm belief that women should be sent to these areas – or at least given as equal a chance as male colleagues to decide if we want to go.
There are also advantages to sending us. We tell another story. Women’s approach to tragedy and death is different to men’s. I’m not saying women can report only a certain kind of story – we should be concerned if a woman is reporting only from a woman’s point of view – but I am saying that we bring an added perspective to war reporting, a little less focus on bombs and bullets.
Media observers have commented at length that because most war correspondents are men, war coverage in most countries still tends to be very slanted towards macho aspects – armies, weapons, explosions, body counts, territory gained and lost. Women, on the other hand, identify with other women and tend to tell stories about ordinary people caught in conflicts – stories about death and mutilation, rape, starvation, homelessness, poverty, disease and the breakdown of families. Men also report on this but not enough.
As women, we also have access our male colleagues don’t. I’ve shared cups of tea with the wives of mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan, crawled through an illegal tunnel with Hamas smugglers while wearing a scarf and skirt and sat around a kitchen table with veiled Iraqi women. We are welcomed into their homes because we’re female and pose no real threat. We can also diffuse a potentially dangerous situation – more than once my presence alone has caused tempers to dissipate.
According to the Global Media Monitoring Project, news stories by female reporters are also almost twice as likely to challenge gender stereotypes than stories by men because stories by female reporters have more female news subjects. Bearing in mind that at least half our audiences – if not more – is female, this makes good business sense, if nothing else.
But the challenges facing the female war correspondent are immense. Not least of all, stereotypes and cultural beliefs held by societies that still expect women to be subordinate and subservient. It’s worth remembering, though, that as female war journalists we catapult ourselves in and out of countries, to places where wives, mothers and daughters often have few legal rights. No matter what we do, we can always leave. They can’t. And so when people tell me I’m brave for going to these places, the truth is I’m not. It’s the women we leave behind who are the true unsung heroes.
Paula Slier is an international war correspondent who heads her own media company in the Middle East, Newshound Media.