Instead of profiling women at the helm in this industry, as we would normally do for Women in The Media Awards, we have asked top women in the different sectors their opinions and we are giving it to you straight. Today, we feature the CEO of Africa’s biggest media company, Media24’s Esmaré Weideman.
You are the most senior woman in the SA media. What does this mean to you?
I am rather uncomfortable with the gender tag. I have never liked the “first woman to…” label. It boxes you in and defines you in a way that is rather limiting. However, I do understand that it means something to some women that there’s a woman at the helm of a major media company in South Africa (just as it means something to some journalists that there’s a former journalist at the helm of Media24). If it serves as inspiration, it is a badge worth carrying – particularly in a country where women are often still so stereotyped.
Is it tougher and lonelier at the top because you are a woman?
No. It is lonely at the top – full stop. It is lonely at any top, whether you’re an editor or a CEO. The buck stops with you, and that is a huge responsibility to carry.
Do you believe it is important for more women to be in senior management in this industry?
Somehow there still seems to be this perception that there aren’t a lot of women in publishing; in other words, the business side of media. This is not true. There are many women in senior business management positions in media; well, certainly at Media24. Perhaps they don’t have as high a public profile as editors, but they are there – on merit. The glass ceiling has long been shattered. To give you some stats: 50% of senior managers at Media24 are women and 51% of mid-level managers are women. Granted, at top management level only 20% are women, but we’re talking a total of 15 people on this level.
Having said that, it would be marvellous to see more women editors joining the publishing/business management ranks – not because they are women but because they are editors. Having editorial people in management positions in a media company is meaningful because they understand the nature of the business so well.
The jump from editorial to business management in media is not that major anymore. Editors, nowadays, have to be incredibly multi-skilled – from content to finance, from print to online, from strategy to execution. And look at the examples which are being set internationally – Arianna Huffington went from journalist and editor to running the Huffington Post; Natalie Massenet went from magazine fashion editor to starting Net-a-Porter.
Is gender equality still an essential issue to be considered in media management? Why?
As editor of Huisgenoot, YOU and DRUM, gender was an important issue to me simply because men and women generally bring different issues to the editorial table. I had a man in my executive team who pushed quite hard for certain male-interest stories and who certainly knew more about sport than the women did. In a women-dominated environment, which we had in my time, it was important to create an environment where men, the minority, felt free to speak out, make story suggestions, knew they were being taken seriously and their contribution was valued. In media management on a corporate level, I don’t think gender plays a role.
What are you focusing on, in terms of empowerment in the industry and why?
At Media24 we don’t have enough black people, particularly black women, in mid and senior management positions, especially on the business side. That is a huge focus for me and my executive team.
Media is a tough career for women with children, so many top people leave full-time employment. What are you/Media24 doing to keep those women?
Yes, journalism – in fact, the media business in general – is a 24/7 job. You can’t do that without good support at home, whether you’re a man or a woman. For women, who traditionally are the homemakers, it is definitely a challenge. Personally I am blessed with a man who also works in media, who understands the demands, and who has always been very supportive of my career. That makes an enormous difference. I know a lot of women in similar positions though. (Most of the women in my personal circle, including journalists, have men who cook.) As a manager, I have always encouraged working parents, women and men, to take some time off to go watch their children play rugby or netball. It is so important for the kids to have their parents there. You can always catch up (except when you are on a serious deadline). As a manager you need to pay attention to the needs of your colleagues – I once had a senior journalist working from home for six months after having had her baby and I was okay with it because I knew she’d deliver the goods. It enabled her to spend quality time with her little boy. Many women organise their lives around their families nowadays – you get home at, say, 6.30pm, spend time with the family until the children go to bed, then get behind your computer again. I don’t worry so much about the children; I do have a lot of sympathy with the partners.
What are you doing to change the fact that, as research states, women’s voices as experts are not heard enough in current affairs and news?
We try to raise awareness, not only on a gender basis but also on a race basis. At some stage we had a register of experts, leaning towards female/black, but I am not so sure that really worked. It is much better to sensitise rather than prescribe. At the end of the day it is an editor’s job to say “give me a more diversified view”.
What needs to be done in the media to change perceptions about women, in terms of abuse and other stereotypes?
All stereotypes need to be challenged at all times. Stories about people who challenge stereotypes need to be reported. Journalists and editors constantly need to be made aware of stereotyping. We need to read, to listen, to debate, to hear, to be challenged, to challenge.
As a role model to women in the media, what would you like them to learn from you?
Firstly, that passion, commitment and hard work – not gender – matter. Secondly, you can have any career you want to have – dismiss the notion of a glass ceiling. Thirdly, you have the right to make choices – some women choose not to work 24/7 and they should be respected for that decision. But if you do have an all-encompassing career as well as a family, take a moment to thank the people in your life who make it possible for you to do your job. They deserve some recognition and praise. So do you.