It’s tough for women on newspapers, but the industry needs us more than ever, says a campaigner promoting greater opportunities
Not a week goes by without major handwringing about the slow progress of women in public life – whether it’s the still paltry number of women in politics, particularly at the top, in the judiciary or in my own patch, journalism. Indeed, as I started to write this piece the House of Lords, no less, informed the organisation I chair, Women in Journalism (WIJ), that it wanted our input over the lack of women in the hard news end of broadcasting. It is still depressingly common to have major debates on radio and tv in which there are no female voices – a woeful state of affairs nearly a century after women got the vote.
So what is the truth about women in newspapers? Mixed is perhaps the kindest way to put it. The last woman to edit a daily broadsheet was Rosie Boycott at The Independent from January to April 1998. The deep end of most newspapers – by which I mean news, comment, the backbench – is still overwhelmingly male. A recent WIJ survey of front-page bylines found that between 75 per cent and 90 per cent (depending on the paper, with the Financial Times and The Independent the worst) were written by men. The average ratio of male to female bylines is 78:22. Does this matter? Yes. Research by the journalism department at Bournemouth University, presented to the all-party parliamentary group on sex equality last month found that women in 2012 were receiving less coverage in proportion to their relative numbers in parliament than in 2002 and 1992, and were being quoted less than 20 years ago.
Laura Bates, of the Everyday Sexism project, says the lack of, or negative, coverage of women in power puts off the next generation of young women from putting their heads over the parapet.
So what is the current crop of female editors? There are only three on national titles, all on Sundays: Lisa Markwell at The Independent on Sunday, Allison Phillips at the Sunday Mirror and Victoria Newton at The Sun on Sunday. True, there is Sarah Sands in the chair at London’s influential daily, the Evening Standard. But when it comes to the prime editorships of the papers that sway the agenda – the Daily Mail, The Times, the FT, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Observer and Mail on Sunday – the chaps remain firmly ensconced.
There is some progress in what is called the marzipan layer just below the summit. At my own newspaper, The Sunday Times, we have a female deputy editor in Sarah Baxter and me as editorial director. At The Times John Witherow, the editor, also has a female number two in Emma Tucker and another senior woman in Nicola Jeal, queen of features and the Saturday edition. There is a similar story elsewhere, with women deputies at The Guardian and Gillian Tett as managing editor, Sue Matthias (magazine editor) and Caroline Daniel at the FT , though the Mail these days and The Telegraph are pretty short on senior female executives.
But since I began my career back in 1994, things have not shifted as much as we might have hoped – the ratios of men to women seem to have remained stubbornly similar. On The Sunday Times, about a third of the executives in conference are female – good by industry standards. But as the week progresses and the number of features or arts executives dwindles, by Friday night and Saturday there are often only two or three women left – and one of those is likely to be the lawyer.
To be fair, this is not entirely the fault of the management – the antisocial and long hours cause many women to absent themselves from news positions – whether as reporters or on the desk. Few women with children want to work on Saturdays or until 10.30pm or later every night. I’ve seen waves of bright young women reporters and editors put themselves on a more child-friendly, part-time or features hours track once their children arrive , though the difficulties women face are not just to do with having children, of course. Almost a quarter of my own highly-educated peer group does not. There are a good handful of 20-something women in newsrooms proving themselves – and, as in other industries, a 20-something woman is as tough and long-hours friendly as any man. But as other life pressures begin to bite in the mid-20s and the management pyramid begins to contract, meaning there are fewer jobs going, the hierarchy – particularly in news, sport and business – starts to look ever more male. And unfortunately, some of the women who do remain in senior positions become so bloke-ified by the macho water in which they swim that many younger women looking up don’t see them as role models for the kind of women they might want to become.
The trouble with women opting out is that then there are not enough of them to force a change in the structures that make it female-unfriendly. With some management imagination it is certainly possible, in my experience, to hang on to talented women. The Sun, for instance, has changed the shift pattern and brought in job shares (recently with the features editor job, now split between a woman returning from maternity leave and one with a severely disabled child) to ensure female voices are heard. “We want people in senior positions with life experience, who are at the school gate – the paper is not good if it is just put together by 55-yearold fat white blokes who spend their lives in the office,” says Stig Abel, The Sun’s managing editor.
A lifeline to being a mother too
I was kept in the game because when I tried to resign after having my first baby – I was editing the news review at The Sunday Times, working till 2am on Fridays and long days the rest of the week, and I felt I wasn’t seeing my daughter – my editor suggested I work at home on a Wednesday. That doesn’t sound like much, but it made all the difference: I took my daughter to baby music, later I could take her to and from school and be part of school gate life. It was a lifeline to be able to be the kind of mother and worker I wanted to be. Often a small boon makes all the difference.
But why does it matter to newspapers to keep women in the game? Well, half the readers are female. A paper run entirely by men is never going to come up with the kind of articles half their punters might want to read. And by that, I don’t just mean the “How to lose weight” or “Ooh, cabinet ministers have handbags” school of features. A female eye on the news agenda can make a difference. For instance, The Sunday Times’s news editors commendably commissioned an investigation into British doctors and dentists they believed were carrying out female genital mutilation on young British girls. At the time this was not the well-trawled mainstream subject it has since become. Back then, the only places writing about FGM were The Guardian’s women’s page and feminist websites. The male news desk believed in the story and saw it as a good area for an undercover investigation, but didn’t appreciate the potential for a campaign or how it would catch the public imagination. As a woman, I feel passionately about FGM. Armed with notes, charts and the gruelling testimony of a Birmingham midwife whom I had interviewed, I talked The Sunday Times’s editor through the horrendous facts, how around 100,000 women in the UK had been cut and that 24,000 young girls living among us were at risk. The upshot was the paper ran the story on the front page, over a spread inside and backed it up with a leader; later the dentist we implicated was struck off.
Over the following months, the issue became mainstream news and the baton was nobly picked up by the Evening Standard (I’m sure it is significant it is a publication edited by a woman), which achieved a change in the law. In order for such subjects to get the projection they deserve we need women in positions of influence. Without women that perspective is lost, which can only have a negative impact on sales, let alone the perhaps more important issue of representation and a voice in a 21st century democracy.
The good news is that young women entering the profession are doing so in larger numbers than men (according to the journalism professor Suzanne Franks) and in possession of great talent and enthusiasm. At the WIJ summer party, held, fittingly, at the House of St Barnabas in Soho (once a hospital for fallen women) on a sweltering summer night, the high turnout and decibel count was ample evidence of the optimism and enthusiasm of new young talent. Over the past few months, WIJ has held packed sessions, including one on How to Succeed – featuring Sands, the Bloomberg bureau chief Emma Ross Thomas and Helena Morrissey, chair of Opportunity Now and the 30% Club). Sands talked about how the unpopular or anti-social shift was a friend of the ambitious young woman as it gave her a chance to be in charge. She also suggested that starting in business journalism – where there are more paying jobs – was a good way to master a particular beat and the art of story-getting. She also felt it lent a bit of gravitas to the lady-hack –Tett being one of the many successful graduates of that path, alongside Emma Tucker and Rachel Johnson, who both started out on the FT and subsequently broadened their range. At another WIJ event, Dame Ann Leslie and Christina Lamb, two of our most distinguished female war correspondents, talked thrillingly to an openmouthed audience of young women about their adventures on global battlefields. Lamb spoke of how women seek out the more humane aspects of a war tale – not just the tanks and bang-bang – and how she sees as particular heroes the mothers in warzones who put food on the table, keep their kids safe and send them to school. Dame Ann spoke of how a little female politesse and charm can bamboozle the scariest warlord (I think it probably helped that most of them thought she was, or knew, the Queen). I felt it was crucial for young women to see and hear from such brilliant female role models who come back from the world’s most terrifying hotspots with stories to rival any man’s. If ever there was proof that women can do the job as well as any man it is in Lamb and Leslie – and other brave women such as the late Marie Colvin, Hala Jaber and so many others. More worrying, though, was their view that now that journalists themselves are so often seen as targets, warzones are becoming more dangerous places. They cited, in particular, the targeting of female correspondents for sexual assault in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere, as signs that such reporting was becoming more perilous.
Beware of the researcher
During my research for this piece I canvassed a lot of opinions. Older women said they felt optimistic because there was now such an army of young women in the newspaper workforce. “When I joined in the late 1970s,” said one, “any woman anywhere was like a minor celebrity in journalism because there were so few of us.” When I chafe at the slow progress we’ve made in conquering the higher echelons, I am soothed by cooler heads who point out how far women have come. Others, though, highlight pitfalls along the way. Secretarial positions are now an unheard of luxury at most newspapers, but young women should beware the “researcher” trap. By all means take one of these posts on a national if you can get it, but for no longer than a year/18 months maximum. These are stepping-stone jobs – use them as a launch pad, pitch stories frantically, work out exactly where you want to be and aim for that.
I see too many young women stuck as researchers, believing that if they wait it out at some point it will be Buggins’ turn and they will get a break. But journalism isn’t like that – if you want it, you have to reach out and grab it yourself, make it happen, pitch that idea, be adventurous, seize the moment. If you sit too long in a researcher gig, you are doomed to stay there. Fortune favours the bold and journalism favours those who will make the extra call, go the extra mile, put their neck on the line – there are no prizes for just turning up.
But while young women need to be brave, there are some environments in which, however courageous or talented you are, the odds are stacked against you. As chair of WIJ, I am privileged to be the recipient of confidences from across the industry and the stories I hear about life for young women on some tabloids fill me with fear. Particularly concerning are their tales of macho cultures, desk editors openly watching and talking about porn, and heading off to the pub. As one tabloid hackette put it: “The tabloid newsroom is far from being woman-friendly – visitors would be lucky to see a woman anywhere near a news desk or a backbench. There is a deeply entrenched bloke culture. It’s all about the boys’ club, promotions are dished out in the pub and women aren’t invited. In the end, women just get fed up. The words ‘flogging a dead horse’ come to mind.”
Then the vicious circle continues and newspapers are edited purely by men. There are women in features and fashion departments but the view from the top is that what they do is a bit of fluff. Attitudes in these parts seem often to be positively neanderthal – tales of bullying, sexual bullying, writing women off when they have kids and a laddish culture are depressingly frequent.
It is not plain sailing in the liberal bastions either – Amelia Gentleman has fought a well-documented campaign to get women’s voices heard on crucial committees at The Guardian, which can be as guilty as anywhere else of being a boys’ club, despite its right-on image. Across all titles there is also a gender pay gap that must be fought.
So what do young women need to do to get on? If I were starting out now, I would ensure I was tech-tastic – able to blog on the run, build a twitter following, be savvy with a video camera and grow a multimedia audience. A senior woman journalist I spoke to also counselled about the importance of young women finding life partners who will be supportive not just in terms of children and childcare but in relishing female success – this is still a tricky area for some men.
There is less money in journalism now. Those of us towards the top who have been lucky enough to have solid careers and salaries may be the last of a dying breed. The public will always want stories and need newspapers to tell them, and they are more likely to keep paying if newspapers are written equally by women as men, but I’m not so sure that in the future there will be the money and journalistic infrastructure that my generation enjoyed. To be a journalist is to have a bit of a vocation. As a child I was always told to stop making “remarks”, essentially to stop calling a spade a spade and be polite. I never learned to do that – in fact I made a career out of that particular, irritating talent. All journalists, male or female, need to be stubborn, to refuse to be silenced, to be a bit of an exhibitionist, have a need to be heard and a hunger to get and break stories, to explain what events mean as they happen.
In our culture, too often women are encouraged to suppress more exhibitionist or competitive qualities, which perhaps means it is harder for them to make their voices heard. In a tough newsroom there are no prizes for being a good girl or a shrinking violet. These jobs are so desired and there are so many young people who are prepared to pay almost any price to get them, that more traditionally female attributes can be a disadvantage. All the more reason then to encourage the young women we have coming down the pipe to relish their talents while trying to be the kind of more senior female journalists they might in turn aspire to be.
Madeline Albright said there is a special circle of hell reserved for women who don’t help other women – I agree. Women at the top should be mentoring, encouraging, giving their time to help the next generation of Colvins, Caitlin Morans or Tetts through the ranks. We also need to encourage managements to be flexible and imaginative and help keep women in the game during those tricky years in their 30s when life becomes pretty overfull.
If our profession is to flourish in the future, these young women are the key. Female reporters, specialists, columnists, executives and editors of the future, I salute you and welcome you. Journalism is a noble profession – we hold power to account and write the first draft of history. Equality and democracy is not truly possible without half of those voices being female – there is a long way to go.
Originally published in the British Journalism Review