Are the gains in gender equity in newsroom management as fragile as male dominance is entrenched in the news business? While there have been many gains for women editors internationally, there has been a noticeable backtracking of late.
The headline grabbing ‘departures’ of The New York Times’ Jill Abramson and Le Monde’s Natalie Nougayrède – arguably the world’s top two female executive editors – is testimony to that.
Also, the World Editors Forum (WEF) identified the rise and fall of women editors as one of its ‘top trends in newsrooms in 2014’ and has included it in the forum’s annual report.
While women now outnumber men as journalism graduates, they remain under-represented in news management and poorly represented – stereotyped and underquoted – as sources within news content, according to the international research.
The dismissal of Abramson and the forced resignation of Nougayrède certainly represent blows to women aspiring to news media management. Elisa Lees Munoz, who is the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), believes their representation was significant. “Women make up less than a quarter of top management positions and less than a third of governance positions in United States news media, according to the ‘IWMF Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media’. This paucity of representation makes each one of the representatives mean much more – both when they rise and fall.”
A recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report found that, worldwide, just over a quarter of senior media management positions are occupied by women. South African research indicates that women edit 28% of national newspapers (three percent down from last year). In Australia, only 12% of major metropolitan editors-in-chief are women, according to research conducted in 2013 by the Women in the Media project. In the United Kingdom, the figure is just 16%. The picture is even worse in the US, where the American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that women occupy only 10% of “supervisory or upper management” positions in newsrooms. According to the Women’s Media Centre’s (WMC) ’Status of Women in the US Media: 2014’ report, The New York Times had the lowest rate of female bylines in the US – with only 31% of bylines belonging to women.
But, prior to Abramson’s dismissal, there was evidence of significant change in the ranks of senior editorial management at The Times, with women occupying half of the top-ranking editorial management positions for the first time. “There is a generational shift going on and the available pool of talent in the future may be dominated by women rather than men,” Janet Elder told WEF before Abramson was sacked. Elder was promoted to deputy managing editor in 2013 and she is now the most senior woman in The Times’ newsroom.
Elder argued that there was a process of dramatic change under way at The Times, reflective of shifting newsroom demographics and strategic management. “In the past, men have been more likely than women to be assigned to some of the most coveted jobs in journalism – foreign posts, political campaigns, investigative reporting. These jobs, in turn, often propelled the men who held them into senior roles,” she observed.
“Currently, in our own newsroom, some of our most dangerous reporting assignments – Jerusalem, Beirut and South Africa – have all been given to women, some with young children. That in itself is a sea change.”
Hilly Janes, who is a writer and former senior executive at UK titles The Times, The Independent and Prospect, attributes the problem of women’s under-representation in senior roles in Britain to the working environment in newsrooms, where the more demanding roles require employees to work long, irregular hours. This makes it difficult to juggle work with primary care roles, which women continue to take the lead on. “Women who take career breaks can lose confidence, and with the advent of ever-changing digital and social media it is much harder to keep up, which saps their confidence even more,” Janes told WEF. She believes “family-friendly hours” are far more likely to result in “women dominating at every level”.
Lisa MacLeod, head of operations at FT.com and a former managing editor of the Financial Times, is balancing a high-profile media management career with motherhood. “As a newcomer, and a late starter to motherhood, I do suddenly understand why so many women seemingly disappear after having children… My female colleagues [who] have not had families progress forward and upwards. Those [who] do, have to make choices: these involve compromising seniority for fewer working hours, reduced working weeks and child-friendly hours,” MacLeod told WEF. “This might only happen for five years or so, but that’s enough to amount to a serious setback in terms of career progression.”
Structural changes and flexible workloads may be necessary to ensure the promotion of more women with children to senior editorial positions. “I think companies could be more flexible in working out the best way to handle mothers in organisations,” she told WEF. “One thing I do know for sure is that you can’t underestimate the effectiveness of a woman juggling a family and a career; because time becomes so limited, these women are functioning on full power throughout the working day. They may not be there for 14 hours, but you are getting eight hours of serious work out of them, and they are formidable multi-taskers.”
MacLeod offers this advice to aspiring female editors to speed up their progression through the management ranks: take every opportunity to manage things or people. “Read about management, see how other people handle situations, and ask lots of questions. The more you do it, the better you will become, and the more likely you are to be chosen to lead your own team,” she urges.
Botswana newspaper publisher Beata Kasale told WEF, “Women must make themselves visible. The media is about visibility. If they take a back seat, nobody will know that they are there. They should be more assertive.” Kasale is the publisher and former editor of The Voice, one of seven Botswana media organisations that recently united to devise a common gender policy designed to mainstream newsroom equality. She noted that in Africa, “Women are missing in key positions of leadership in the newsrooms. Although there are a small number of women working as journalists, most are in clerical, cleaning, distribution and advertising departments.”
But breaking through the newsroom glass
ceiling is only part of the equation. Women editors are particularly vulnerable to the ‘glass
cliff’ – the phenomenon that sees women typically occupying more precarious management positions than their male counterparts. Amanda Wilson, who was appointed as the first female editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in the newspaper’s 180-year history, remained in the position for just 18 months. She recalls the particular challenges she faced in the role. “Yes, male editors are sacked or moved on, but the trouble for female leaders is that the mere fact of being a woman in the job attracts a vicious backlash”, she wrote in The Guardian. “The more powerful a woman is, the more poisonous this is. I don’t want to discourage any woman from seeking leadership but I would strongly recommend she arm herself against this by finding a good mentor – even if it is a paid professional relationship – so she is given honest feedback in a safe environment. Most senior women I have met since joining their ranks tell me they had and still have mentors. I limped along without that kind of help and probably made a lot of mistakes because of it.”
Former newspaper editor Anette Novak is the CEO of Sweden’s Interactive Institute and WEF board member. She believes “A person who wishes to make it to CEO level has to start focusing on vision, strategy and long-term perspectives [as opposed to details and short-termism]. This is true both for men and women – but in my experience it is more common that women either get stuck in the details or assisting the management but are seldom getting credit for it.”
She also believes that gender-neutral language is important in fostering a level playing field. “The owners and executives [who sometimes groom their successor] need to kill the stereotype of the male CEO. I often catch that in contract templates, for instance, where one refers to the CEO as “he”. I am not saying that a “she” is more competent. In an era where “customer first” is the only way forward, where the majority of consumption decisions are taken by women, excluding half of humanity from the selection base is just bad business” she said.
Julie Posetti is a research fellow with the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the editor of WEF’s Trends in Newsrooms. Additional reporting for this piece by Emily Bennett and Douglas Grant.
The World Editors Forum’s Trends in Newsrooms report for 2014 is available free to members and for purchase.
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Tim Anger
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