Women in the newsroom are losing their fight for equality. This mirrors the patriarchal rule in our country and the sexist media culture overseas too. Right wing backlash, or left wing backlash; it’s all the same. What a bunch of losers.
But who are the losers? Is it the women, men, or the patriarchal system in the government or the media? The answer is this: all of us are losers for not making greater strides with gender diversity.
The latest research, and news, regarding women in leadership positions in the media indicates a grim state of affairs. A sneak preview of the ‘State of the Newsroom 2014’ by Wits Journalism, to be released later this year, shows there are fewer women editors this year than last year. In 2014, out of 43 newspaper editors, 31 are male (72%) and 12 are female (28%). In 2013 there were 29 male editors (69%) and 13 female editors (31%). For black women editors this year the figure is even more dismal at 14%.
The most significant and recent report on transformation, the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team report of 2013, showed that men are in the majority in media ownership, on boards and in management positions.
There is a backlash against women, and trends in the media are in tandem with the country as a whole, it seems.
Following the recent national elections, the ANC government and President Jacob Zuma selected only one woman to lead one out of eight provinces (Helen Zille is premier of the ninth). It is tragic that prior to most elections, the ANC Women’s League proclaims that we are not ready for a woman president. City Press columnist Mondli Makhanya was recently puzzled about the so-called protest over the single woman ANC provincial leader. What protest? There was one lone voice of protest, Jessie Duarte from the ANC corner itself.
Looking at women’s leadership in the global media, we see two of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, the New York Times and Le Monde losing their women editors this year. The former being the first woman editor of that 160-year-old paper, who was booted out of the old boys’ club after two-and-a-half years. Jill Abramson was dumped, ostensibly for hiring an editor for digital projects without informing her deputy (who is now the editor). This lack of consulting happens often in the hectic run-of-the-mill events in the workplace. You sort it out, apologise and move on, surely?
The dead giveaway is in the discourse: some of the words bandied about to describe Abramson’s style of leadership strikes at the heart of a deeply patriarchal culture: bossy, pushy, strident, cold as ice and brusque. Yet these qualities, if they did indeed apply to her, we have come to accept from male leaders in the workplace.
Abramson also raised the issue of getting a lower salary than her male predecessors. That is apparently not acceptable for a woman to do. They must keep mum about their pay and accept their lot while men can vie for promotions and increases.
Old boys’ clubs proliferate, according to the best-selling book ‘Lean In’ by the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, in which she details her rise, and pays tribute to the women and men who supported her in getting there. She quotes former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright saying there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women in the workplace. Her message is that getting in with the patriarchal culture to climb up the corporate ladder, by putting other women down, may work but only in the short term.
In South Africa, women editors have not had an easy time because they are judged as women editors. The two prominent women editors of competing Sunday papers, Ferial Haffajee (City Press) and Phylicia Oppelt (Sunday Times), have been unfairly pitted against each other as ‘cats’ fighting. Yet, if two male editors had a disagreement, it would have been ignored as normal competition or robust discussion.
Sheila Meintjes, Wits University professor of political studies and a gender equality activist, is trying to make sense of what she agrees is a gender backlash. In her analysis, right-wing populism [and in our case, a false kind of left-wing populism] has gained ground. In this context, where the right gains, the views on women and gender equality become highly conservative. “Talk of family values usually means that women lose out in the public sphere. In our context, the talk of ‘our traditions’ also means that women should know their place… in the home.”
We need to engage in more advocacy against sexism in our society. We must protest more about violence against women and unequal pay. We need to challenge the patriarchal culture and sexist stereotypes that, for instance, women should know their place – in the newsroom but not in the editor’s office.
We need to write articles when women experience backlashes and we need to track the numbers, as we do in the ‘State of the Newsroom’ project for race and gender in editorships.
Often women are their own worst enemies. We need to stop comparing ourselves to other women and stop feeling insecure about the successes of others, and instead celebrate and take inspiration from them. In newsrooms, women journalists must put their hands up and not wait for leadership positions to come to them.
Sandberg relays a salutary story. After one seminar, she said, “Okay time’s up, no more questions now.” The women were obedient but the men waved for attention, which they received.
Do not automatically assume that leadership positions should go to men by default. We need men in leadership to have more confidence in women and approach women to apply for editorships. In fact, the majority of editorships for women in South Africa took place this way. You get recognised because you have shown talent, hard work and exhibited leadership qualities (such as confidence, enthusiasm, quick decision-making) and you are told to apply. Some do, most don’t.
Is the sad state of affairs due to biology, because women can have babies? Instead of society and workplaces making allowances for this, they discriminate against them. Yet research has shown that young girls today excel at school more than their male counterparts. This is the same at university.
A special place in hell for women who don’t support other women in the workplace? Hectic. But why get angry with just women for not supporting other women? Let’s be angry with everyone in the media (locally and internationally), the government and the ANC. What a bunch of losers.
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
Dr Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer at Wits Journalism, where she heads the ‘State of the Newsroom’ project.
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