When Paula Fray was appointed editor of the Saturday Star, she was the first woman editor of a South African mainstream newspaper. She explains that while a lot has changed, a lot hasn’t, in a story first published in The Media magazine.
Twelve years ago, women editors were somewhat of a novelty. So much so, that when it became known that Lakela Kaunda (Evening Post) and I (Saturday Star) were joining these hallowed ranks, gender activists made note of it in Parliament.
When the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) met then President Thabo Mbeki in 2005, you could still count the number of women editors on your fingers.
Twelve years later. It should be long enough for the novelty to wear off but I found myself in an interview recently where I was asked: “Why is it important to have women editors?”
Just the question indicates that there is, indeed, a need. We don’t ask why it’s important to have editors of different races, or who speak different languages or who have differing political views…but women?
We shouldn’t be surprised. A two-year study by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) – that secured interviews with 500 companies in 59 countries – shows that women are still under-represented in the majority of newsrooms across the globe. And we’re talking in all sectors: news media ownership, publishing, governance, reporting, editing, photojournalism, and broadcast production.
The IWMF research shows that globally men hold nearly two-thirds of reporting jobs. Women hold 41 percent of senior professional positions such as news-gathering, editing and writing roles. And men still dominate at executive level positions. Globally, men occupy 73% of the top media jobs.
And women are as under-represented in the news agenda as they are on the newsroom floor. The 2010 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) project showed only 22% of sources were female.
On the face of it, particularly because women media leaders tend to be high profile, we assume that the change is greater than it actually is. South Africa has made significant strides. Not only are there more women editors than ever before but they are also editing high-profile publications.
But is it enough? The South Africa media are often accused of holding other people to account for transformation yet failing to transform itself. The question is whether we currently have at least 30% representation of women in senior leadership in the newsroom and whether we can achieve a 50% representation by 2015 – as we expect our political institutions to do.
It’s not enough to say that we reflect our society; the media should lead societal transformation.
I am sometimes asked to identify acts of discrimination against me because I am a woman. I wish explicit discrimination was the issue because it would be easy to identify and take action to eliminate. But it’s the acts of omission that weigh far more heavily on the shoulders of young women media leaders: who gets the financial training; who is selected for the career-making story/beat/reporting opportunity; who makes the shortlist for the editor’s position? These are the burning questions which should be asked.
And then, having made that shortlist, ask whether there is room for women to acknowledge and embrace all facets of their beings – including their role as mother? These are issues which our male counterparts have never had to face.
An editor’s worldview plays a large role in the publication’s perspectives, its story choices, its community leadership. Too many editors – male and female – see their role as maintaining the status quo and, in so doing, reinforcing a consensus worldview that dulls debate and fails to inspire.
Women editors are – or should be – as diverse as the men with whom they compete. We don’t all think alike; we’re not all mothers nor do we want to be; we do not speak for half of the population – only for those people who share our views.
When I see the tough assignments some women do take, I wonder if their appointments – rather than shatter the glass ceiling – reinforce the ‘glass cliff’ theory: that women in leadership are more likely to be offered the precarious positions than men. Eager to prove ourselves, we accept these positions that set us up for failure with little additional reward for success.
But it’s a tough world out there for both male and female editors with most challenges not unique to either of them.
These days I spend a lot of time coaching women in media leadership. And my message is clear: “Stand for something. Make your voice count.”
We have to speak up for ourselves because no-one else will. The recent appointment of Esmaré Weideman as Media24 CEO underscores how far women media leaders in South Africa have moved since 1994.
But we still have a long way to go.
Follow Paula Fray on Twitter @paulafray
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