Gender bias still a hurdle for female journalists to cross
Stabroek News – May 6, 2007
By Iana Seales
The work of an independent journalist in Saudi Arabia can be described as a ‘daily struggle’ and if you are a woman, the job is that much tougher.
On another continent, in Ghana, many women journalists never get certain assignments because they are considered ‘male stories’ such as coverage of the economic state of the country, its politics and crime.
Why the gender bias and why all the other discriminatory practices women journalists face is what females in the profession from across the world recently asked during a peer exchange in Washington DC on the issue of challenges females face in the business of journalism. The only clear answer that surfaced is that women still have barriers to break in journalism, a profession that is seeing an increase in the number of women who are making it a career choice.
Facing an influential panel of female American journalists who all admitted the hurdles they come up against are nothing compared to what women in some countries face, a petite Saudi woman who identified herself as a targeted journalist back home because of what she writes, said her work can never be described as easy. She explained:
“I was forced to leave the newspaper I was working for and go into hiding before setting up my own newspaper online because the powers that be were upset with some of what I wrote. It is a suppressive environment to work in as a journalist but when you are a woman it is somehow tougher.”
What was she writing? She was assigned to cover issues affecting women back home and wrote many brutally honest pieces. Among the issues were women being treated poorly and constantly having their rights trampled upon. She said there is much to write about on this particular issue so when she left the job the decision to start her own media outlet was taken shortly after.
As she spoke of what this new form of media in Saudi Arabia is enabling her to do for women over there silence filled the room in the US State Department building and her peers listened with rapt attention. A few heads nodded in solidarity and within minutes of the Saudi journalist surrendering the microphone hands shot up in the air as others sought to comment on how things are in their countries.
Addressing a room full of women who were part of the second US State Department-sponsored, Edward R. Murrow programme for journalists from across the world, the panel of Besty Fischer; Anne Gearan and Anne Kornblut all American journalists spoke of what it was like being in positions previously filled by male journalists at their respective media outlets. To sum their sentiments up, it was liberating but not easy getting there.
Gearan is the chief diplomatic correspondent for the Associated Press in Washington and covers foreign affairs at the State Department, White House and on Capitol Hill. She also travels extensively with the US Secretary of State. She said the position was previously held by a male and since she took over, the challenge has been to prove she was right for the job. She pointed out that women journalist face similar problems as women working in other professions such as lower salaries, sexual harassment and being overlooked for positions.
Asked about her personal experience, Gearan said 20 years ago a co-worker acted inappropriately towards her and she was afraid to say anything but other staff members who had witnessed it reported it and the co-worker was upbraided.
Fischer, who has been the Executive Producer of NBC’s number one rated Sunday morning public affairs programme, “Meet the Press” since July 2002, said she started as an intern and worked her way up to the top. Over the years she has produced interviews with US President George W. Bush; British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld among others.
Though no major challenge has presented itself, something she credits to the wonderful environment in which she works, Fischer said being a mother and doing her job is tough. “Women across the world do it which includes women in journalism but I don’t know how some do it because I have a five-year-old, but if I had to take care of another child much of the work I do would be impossible to do,” she said.
This particular remark resonated with the women gathered.
Perhaps the most vocal on the panel, Kornblut said she understood fully that what she has been through paled in comparison to what women in the profession are up against in some countries. “I have always felt that we in America have it easy and we do. We can report on a range of issues without fear while some of you cannot say the same. I salute the work you do as do my female colleagues because you do it everyday,” she said. Kornblut is a national reporter for the Washington Post, covering her third presidential campaign. Previously she worked at the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She said the campaigns could be tough to cover at times and pointed out that very few women are on that beat. While exciting, she said, campaign season coverage entailed “countless days of travelling and many nights shacked up in a motel room”.
When asked whether a female journalist should take on the role of activist if circumstances allowed, Kornblut said it was okay to write and advocate for change in some instances and gave New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina as an example. She said reporters who went out there could not help but produce reports that would move those in power to act.
Is it a case of playing victim?
Should female journalists expect to rise up in the ranks of the profession if they are not working for it? There were no right or wrong viewpoints so women spoke openly, one in particular from the African nation of Tunisia.
Her voice projecting powerfully from the back of the room, she said female journalists need to stop complaining about how hard it is for them and focus more on breaking down the barriers in their way.
In essence, she said, women need to stop saying that a particular thing is happening to them because they are women and start questioning what can be done about it. She said women need to shift focus from the complaints and examine the way forward. “Too many women complain about what is not going right for them when they are the only ones who can make things right,” she said Another journalist from Panama who owns a weekly newspaper said the females she has on staff have formal training in journalism but when it comes to commitment and putting in the hours on the job, her male reporters stand out. She said the men are not in school and many lack the formal training but they are hard workers. She said the situation is worrying at times.
The concern evident on her face drew giggles from around the room but many women appreciated the different perspective as it emphasised what was being discussed at the time about women playing victims.
All three women sitting on the panel said it was possible that some women do play the victim. They emphasized that getting to where they are took many years and hard work, adding that female journalists are required to be the best at what they do in order to be recognised as such.
It was generally agreed in closing that female journalists do not earn as much as their male counterparts and that there are still hurdles to be crossed. As one journalist from France put it, “We are doing so much and have made progress, but there are glass ceilings and as women we have to recognise it and work to break through them.”