Women in media: Empowered at school but overlooked in newsrooms

Women dominate journalism schools but are overshadowed in male-dominated newsrooms that create barriers to women's advancement and appropriate representation in the media.

That is according to Stellenbosch University PhD Journalism co-ordinator, Professor Lizette Rabe.

“Research has shown that since the sixties, consistently, there are more women in journalism or media studies classes than men, not only in South Africa but globally,” she said.

The latest Glass Ceilings report which assessed the state of South African media in relation to gender shows women made almost half of senior management in newsrooms in the years between 2009 and 2018. However, only 36% of South African women have a cut in top management.

Africa director of the Wan-Ifra Women in News programme Tikhala Chibwana noted similar trends across the continent. He added that unpacking the reasons behind the “mixed bag” of gender dynamics of African media is complex.

“If you begin in varsity, there are more women than men in journalism classes. In the newsroom, there is not much disparity. However, the further up you go up the ladder, you start to see the difference,” Chibwana said.

The gender gap in the African media world echoes global attitudes towards gender and work overall.

The Global Gender Gap 2020 report says “cultural norms and practices underpin the higher education degree specialization of men and women and are a key driver of occupational segregation”.

The report also gives labour trends that will increase in popularity over the years. Globally, women dominate the content production cluster with 57%.

Content production jobs such as social media management and blogging can be done remotely. As a result, Chibwana said the flexibility of online media work is accommodating towards women.

“For example, you can manage a website from home,” Chibwana said.

Rabe said systematic discrimination is the reason behind the lack of an at least 50/50 reflection of women going up the media ranks.

“[Women] are [also] not supported in their traditional roles of primary caregivers once they start a family,” she added.

An International Labour Organisation report indicates some employers may have traditional stereotypical expectations of family and motherhood built into their hiring and promotion expectations.

Wan-Ifra Women In News programme Capacity building manager Jane Godia agreed that playing the “multitasking” role affects a woman’s profession. However, she added that it is not an excuse to deny her from climbing up the corporate ladder.

“There are women who aren’t married and who aren’t mothers. What about them?” Godia said.

Godia said women in media are often left out of informal network sessions which often provide a space for career development.

“These can take place in bars and in clubs. Men can meet a managing editor while he is in a relaxed space where he will be more likely to share his dreams and visions because the conversation will be flowing. You hardly find women in these spaces,” Godia said.

Godia has worked across the continent advocating for gender equality in the media industry and said women are self-conscious when it comes to their reputation.

“Some say to me, ‘I don’t want to get home late going to these bars’, or that they think being seen in those settings may affect their reputation. They end up missing out.”

The missing presence of women in senior media positions has created a number of problems including undiversified news content.

A tragedy of disparity

Chibwana said less than a quarter of the voices heard on different African media platforms are of women and he described the disparity as a tragedy.

“Over half of the African population is women. In a time where we are struggling for audiences, It would make sense to fight to hear those voices,” he said.

Advocating for gender parity in the media has been going on for years at different levels.

The 1995 Beijing Declaration and it’s action plan provide a framework for how women should be empowered, including in the media.

Yet, “despite decades of progress closing the equality gap between men and women, close to 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women,” said a UNDP article outlining the 2020 gender social norms report.

Nigerian freelance investigative journalist Kiki Mordi said the societal norm has always been to favour men over women. She added that because it is a system we were all born into, we actually all play a role in oppressing women.

“There are women in the media industry who don't see that their actions or inactions tear women’s growth in the industry. That's why some people say, ‘women are women's worst enemies. But that phrase is wrong. The patriarchy is women's worst enemy and it's upheld by men and women and women.

“As a result of patriarchal norms, women’s stories are either underrepresented or misrepresented in the media,” Mordi said.

Mordi’s popular BBC Africa Eye ‘Sex for Grades’ documentary uncovers university lecturers and professors sexually harassing students. Mordi said this problem has been going on for years but has just been underreported.

Mordi said women need to tell their own stories to uplift the voices of women. She added that it is important to be gender-sensitive and realise that the language used in stories depicting women is important.

“For example, when reporting about sexual abuse like when a woman is raped, put a lens on the perpetrator. We used masks on the women in the documentary, not because of shame but because we wanted to put the focus on the lecturers.

"If we want to unmask the patriarchy, we need to understand that words mean things,” she said.

“Words are dynamic,” said Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, director of communications and tactics at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

Sekyiamah is also a writer and blogger who co-founded the Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women blog after seeing an absence of sex and sexuality discussions and content centred on African women.

“It’s like the media, especially western media is obsessed with female genital mutilation and periods as if there are the only two subjects when it comes to women,” Sekyiamah said.

Sekyiamah said more stories of African women must be told, co-created by the women in question.

“We need more video stories where women can speak for themselves, especially in their own language where it’s not like they are being made fun of when they speak bad English. The people doing the reporting should also have something in common with the story they are telling. It helps for a better understanding.”

Mordi started a campaign called Document Women to “consciously” battle the erasure of women in the media.

“We need more stories of local, women changemakers in society. We like to say journalists should have no bias nor opinion but they should use their power to lift those down in society and in this context, it’s women,” Mordi said.

Chibwana said a collaborative commitment to retain and uplift women talent needs to be made to change the representation of women in the media.

“I think we mistake the issue of gender as a women’s issue. It is a human rights issue. Women can only do as much as they can to uplift themselves,” he said.

Chibwana added that men, who are the gatekeepers of the industry, have the obligation to play their part to remove the barriers that impede the appropriate representation of women in the media.

“Unless you engage them to deal with the obstacles, it will be difficult to change anything,” he said.

The 2020 International Women’s Day theme is #GenerationEquality to celebrate women’s achievements and to highlight the existing glass ceilings standing in the way of women and growth.

“It is not enough to believe in equality. It has to be really conscious because every day, some of our biases come out to play,” Mordi said.

While journalism classes are teeming with eager students, effective processes and policies in newsrooms can be the deciding factor that retains women’s talent and amplifies their voices or build on the barriers which silence them.

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