In the latest in a series of personal reflections on women's role in the media, Luba Kassova, author of The Missing Perspectives of Women in News reflects on why she believes women in newsrooms are "counted but not included" in the decision making.
Have you ever expressed a view that was dismissed or trivialised immediately? Have you ever worked in a news organisation where you felt invisible or uncomfortable about challenging the status quo? If you have, I would suggest that you are most likely to be a woman or a person of colour and least likely to be a white man.
News organisations, like many others, often view achieving gender equity as a linear process. The underlying assumed theory of change is that the more women are recruited into newsrooms and hired or promoted to top leadership roles, the more female-centric the organisation’s news content will become and the more inclusive of women’s perspectives the organisation and its news will be.
But is this really the case? Does diversity in news organisations guarantee inclusivity and gender egalitarianism in news?
This year, after 170 years of men in charge, Alessandra Galloni became Reuters’ first Editor-in-Chief, while Sally Buzbee brought 143 years of male leadership to an end at The Washington Post, becoming its first female Executive Editor. In 2020 Roula Khalaf became Financial Times’ first female Editor in 131 years. The same year, Nwabisa Makunga became the first female Editor of South Africa’s The Sowetan newspaper, 40 years after its launch. These appointments followed those of Kath Viner in 2015 as the Guardian’s first female Editor-in-Chief, after 194 years of men occupying the top spot, and, in the same year, Zanny Minton Beddoes, as The Economist’s first female Editor-in-Chief, after 170 years of male dominance.
Yet it was 130 years ago in 1891, that Rachel Beer became the first female Editor of The Observer and the owner-proprietor of The Sunday Times. In The Fleet Street Girls, the story of the trailblazing women who broke into the exclusive men’s club of journalism in the UK, the author Julie Welch ponders: “Something about Rachel Beer that I would love to have learned is whether she employed women on either of her papers. None are mentioned in the book...” This powerful question points to a key challenge that news organisations still wrestle with today: namely that gender parity in newsrooms or a female leader at the top of an organisation does not guarantee equity, inclusivity or more gender-balanced content.
A pronoun analysis conducted by the international strategy consultancy AKAS, which examined women’s share of quoted voice as sources, protagonists or experts in the online editions of 19 news outlets between August 2020 and August 2021 found that none of the above-mentioned news organisations led by women editors are even close to gender parity in terms of share of voice.
These results echo the findings of the 2020 The Missing Perspectives of Women in News report which concluded that women’s voices continue to be marginalised in news in the 21st century. That report also found that there was no strong relationship between the proportion of women being news editors in a country and the proportion of women featuring in the news.
A gender pay gap analysis of the latest available data in the UK, again conducted by AKAS reveals that 95% of the news organisations tracked have not reached gender parity on this dimension either. Out of 20 news organisations researched in the UK, the Guardian fared best, with the second lowest gender pay gap in terms of median hourly pay. Nevertheless, women’s median hourly pay was 4.9% lower than men’s. By contrast, with an hourly pay gap of 15.9% and 17.6% in favour of men, the Financial Times and Reuters ranked 13th and 14th on women’s hourly median pay, while The Economist was 17th with women’s hourly pay being 19.3% lower than men’s.
Source: Gov.UK - gender pay gap
Newsrooms may be led by women, but the cultures are quite masculine and very patriarchal.
Research and some news organisations’ own investigations point to organisational culture “getting in the way”. Frequently women and people of colour feel on the periphery of organisational culture. Even when they make up half of newsrooms and news leadership teams, as is the case at the New York Times, women (and especially women of colour) do not feel that their perspectives are heard and acted upon, as the latest New York Times Diversity and Inclusion report revealed.
A study published in 2012 in the European Journal of Communication by Hanitzsch and Hanusch in 2012, found that once in newsrooms, women and men operate within the same professional standards and make similar professional choices. The authors conclude that journalists’ professional identity in news organisations overrides their gender or other identities. Journalists choose to play by the existing spoken and unspoken cultural rules. This may partly explain why news outlets such as The Economist, which has been led by a female Editor for the last six years, remain significantly biased towards men’s voices in their news outputs as well as in their pay.
“Newsrooms may be led by women, but the cultures are quite masculine and very patriarchal,” remarked Nwabisa Makunga, Editor of The Sowetan, in May this year. She went on to identify that the key challenge faced by women editors and everyone in news, is to change organisational cultures.
You really cannot tell the true story or the full story if you are only telling it through the eyes of one group of people.
Bias can only be redressed if it is brought to awareness and understood
It is important for news leaders and newsrooms to acknowledge that overwhelmingly, newsroom cultures reflect the worldviews of men. Furthermore, in multiracial societies organisational cultures are significantly more likely to reflect the worldviews of white men. News providers should be forensic and transparent about their own cultural challenges and biases. Sharing these learnings within the news industry, as NYT has done, builds collective wisdom for the greater good.
Tackling gender blindness through training
It is critical to tackle gender blindness in news organisations through gender sensitivity training programmes for men and women at all organisational levels, not just in newsrooms. Part of that training should focus on increasing awareness of existing anti-female and male-revering social norms, as well as on deliberating whether the role of journalists should extend beyond being storytellers revealing truths to become change agents for the advancement of gender and minority egalitarianism.
Tracking not only diversity but cultural inclusivity too
Besides measuring diversity in terms of the proportion of women and people of colour in newsrooms and in news leadership, it is instructive for organisations to also survey staff about their perceptions of how supportive of plurality in views and decision-making the culture is.
Recruiting journalists who have the capacity to tell stories from a perspective that is different to their own
To go beyond diversity and achieve inclusion, it is imperative that newsrooms have policies which tackle gender and racial bias in their recruitment and retention rates. No one has encapsulated the business need for this more beautifully or succinctly than Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first black female reporter at The Washington Post: “You really cannot tell the true story or the full story if you are only telling it through the eyes of one group of people.”
Changing culture and redressing centuries-old biases is hard. One person, even if they are at the top of the organisation, cannot achieve this on their own. But, if women’s voices in news are to be heard on a par with men’s, it is imperative to acknowledge that newsroom cultures need to change across the whole news industry. That would be a significant first step.
Luba Kassova is an evidence-based storyteller and Director at audience strategy consultancy AKAS. She is the author of The Missing Perspectives of Women in News and The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 news.
Thomson Foundation and Thomson Media are tackling the issue of gender disparity in the media through a number of projects including the Valley Voices project in Pakistan and The Bettina Fund in Kenya.