Trends in Newsrooms: Business of gender equality

Leading from the top, forging alliances, flagging sexist practices, and providing training to help female journalists tackle ‘cybermisogyny’ are important steps being undertaken globally in an effort to achieve real progress in the struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment in newsrooms, reports Julie Posetti.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 4, 2015

Women are still dramatically under-represented behind editors’ desks, so the appointment of Katharine Viner as The Guardian’s first female Editor-in-Chief had women journalists across the globe fist-pumping in the direction of the glass ceiling.

Viner, who replaced Alan Rusbridger in May, is The Guardian’s 12th editor, and the first woman at the helm since the paper was established in 1821. She is also the only female editor of a ‘quality’ UK daily newspaper.

Her appointment followed the ascent of Minton Beddoes to the editorship of The Economist.

It was a case of two steps backward, two steps forward after the dismissal of Jill Abramson from The New York Times and the departure of Natalie Nougayrède from France’s Le Monde in close succession in 2014.

There are decades of research – industry and academic – that confirm the appallingly low presence of women in senior media management and editorial positions, and the poor, stereotypical representation of women in the news. For example, research conducted by the Who Makes the News project shows that women constitute a mere 24% of news sources. And a global study by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) shows that women make up only 36% of reporters and a quarter of media decision-makers. Other studies have revealed a growing gender gap in access to, and ownership of, online platforms. And in some countries, recent gains are being eroded. South African journalist and researcher Dr Glenda Daniels released a report late in 2014 on the State of the Newsroom in her country, which indicates a decline of approximately 9% in the number of women holding Editor-in-Chief positions on major South African titles since 2013.

We’ve been waiting 20 years for real change

It’s 20 years since an historic UN conference in Beijing saw 189 countries adopt the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a visionary roadmap for women’s rights and empowerment.

But the International Steering Committee of the recently formed Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAGhas expressed concern that progress towards media that support gender equality and women’s rights objectives remains painfully slow. “We cannot talk about equality, good governance, freedom of expression and sustainability when women are effectively silenced in and through the media, and where new technologies are used to undermine the human rights of women and women journalists,” the Committee’s Chair Colleen Lowe Morna declared at the end of the Committee’s inaugural meeting in Geneva.

GAMAG, an initiative of UNESCO, is a network of 500 media organisations and civil society groups from around the world. It has declared 2015 the “year for action,” saying that the time for simply talking about gender inequality in and through the news media has passed.

How do we get past the depressing statistics?

“I think advocacy is very important, research is very important and making a noise about it – shouting about it – is very important,” Glenda Daniels told the 2014 International Newsroom Summit in Amsterdam. Prominent Filipino journalist, and Rappler CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Maria Ressa, said that forging alliances between women and across corporate media boundaries is essential. “Whether it is going to be in pay or editorial positions or benefits, we deserve equality. Collaboration, alliances and really talking to each other are key,” she said.

In an interview with the author, Ressa described Philippines news organisations as being a long way down the path of transformation. “The largest newspaper – Philippine Daily Inquirer – is headed by a woman. After I left the largest TV network, I handed leadership to another woman, the second largest television station is headed by a woman as well. In fact, our joke here at Rappler is we need gender equality for men! I don’t know what makes the Philippines different,” Ressa said. A matriarchal society and poor remuneration for journalists may be factors. “I think part of the reason women stick to the need to become journalists more than men have is because of the lower income…because media doesn’t pay as well as banking, men who come up through the ranks leave at a certain point because they need to feed their families.”

The Bloomberg News recipe for newsroom gender transformation

The most boldly practical and effective strategy for achieving real change in newsrooms the World Editors Forum has encountered is Bloomberg’s. When Bloomberg News marked its 20th anniversary in 2010, the organisation was forced to face a disturbing reality: graphic gender imbalance. “Whenever I looked at our reporting on markets, companies, governments, virtually any subject, the voices on these stories were overwhelmingly men. As a reporter and editor, this disturbed me, because although some of the most authoritative voices on the issues belonged to women, they were conspicuously absent,” the founding Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler told a UN panel on media and gender in New York ahead of International Women’s Day this year.

“This coincided with another disturbing trend – while we were certainly successful in recruiting very talented, bright women to our news organisation, the leadership of Bloomberg News was still overwhelmingly male,” Winkler said.

Winkler, now Bloomberg’s Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, had identified the two biggest impediments to gender equality in and through the news media in the 21st Century: the paucity of women at the helm and the ‘censorship’ of female sources

Gender equality in the news and in news management is good business

“Five years ago we started looking at this entire issue, not just from an ideological imperative or a social imperative, both of which are valid. We decided to present this issue as an economic & business imperative, in the sense that if we want to be the most successful news organisation, if we want to be competitive, then the only way we are going to succeed is if we address the gender imbalance: it’s an economic and business issue,” Winkler said.

Tackling the gender imbalance – both in the news and behind editors’ desks – requires “…a whole set of policies, prescriptions, targets, goals – like any good business does,” Winkler said.

Good businessGood businessThe paucity of mothers at the top of the newsroom hierarchy was dealt with head on: “What we set out to do is make sure that right at the top of the news organisation there are women who have had families, who have been all over the world, whose reporting and editing is distinguished as anyone’s, and that they would be in a position to remind everyone else ‘You can do this too.’”

Bloomberg News still has a long way to go, Winkler admits. But one of the measures of their early success, he said, is the fact that “most of the headcount at Bloomberg News” now reports to a woman – Senior Executive Editor Laura Zelenko, a former Bloomberg News Eastern Europe correspondent. Winkler made a point of highlighting her qualifications: “Her credentials as a leader are unimpeachable.”

He also pointed to another measurable outcome: the number of female team leaders at Bloomberg News has doubled in the past four years. “It took a lot of attention but it was worth it and the leadership now is balanced to the extent that a woman has most authority over what we cover every day.”

Focusing on women in news also makes better journalism

And there have been editorial pay-offs too, Winkler said. For example, the strategy of tracking women leaders in business led to Bloomberg News breaking the story about the appointment of the first woman automobile industry CEO in the world – General Motors’ Mary Barra. “It was an example of where I say paying attention to this gender issue has made us far more competitive than we otherwise would be. We even beat the hometown media in Detroit to the story.”

Winkler emphasised the fact that the Bloomberg News’ gender transformation project is still a work in progress – but one in which men and women are equal partners. “We have a long way to go but by committing ourselves through policy, and framing the policy as an economic and business decision, this is going to make us a better company, a better news organisation, this becomes an issue that has to be embraced not just by women, but by men too because we all benefit from the result.”

Asked by France 24’s Annette Young to explain the discrepancy between the number of female journalism school graduates and junior ranked reporters in newsrooms compared to women in news management, Winkler was clear about the cause of the problem: “The issue is insufficient leadership in the newsroom.” Young presents The 51 Percent – a TV News show about women – out of Paris. Her response to Winkler’s Bloomberg News strategy for change: “If the management of a news organisation that operates in the traditional world of American corporate culture can do it, so can everybody else.” (See Matthew Winkler’s “Five point recipe for newsroom transformation” and the Q&A with Annette Young at the end of this chapter.)

The new threat to women in news: Cybermisogyny

While highlighting the potential of social media channels to act as conduits for women’s empowerment and solidarity, experts acknowledge the growing impact of “cybermisogyny” on women journalists.

A recent UK study of Twitter abuse targeting celebrities by Demos found that “Journalism is the only category where women received more abuse than men, with female journalists and TV news presenters receiving roughly three times as much abuse as their male counterparts.”

Cybermisogyny, expressed via online sexual harassment through to stalking and threat of violence, is a genuine psychological – and potentially physical – risk to safety of women journalists. It is also a threat to the active participation of women in civil society debate, fostered by news publishers, through online commenting platforms and their social media channels.

It can be an especially brutal experience when you’re writing about feminism, as Jezebel staff recently pointed out to Gawker executives, “It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra…It’s impacting our ability to do our jobs,” they wrote in an email.

Australian journalist, journalism educator and feminist activist Jenna Price knows first hand what cybermisogyny feels like. The co-founder of the high-impact feminist Facebook group ‘Destroy the Joint’, she has received online threats to rape her, and her daughters, in response to her journalism and activism. “…once a week, some thug will suggest that what will fix my feminist mindset is a good raping,” she told Daily Life. “There is nothing more terrifying than opening your email to pictures of beheaded women, or women being beaten and sexually assaulted. I had sleepless nights,” she said.

Price told the World Editors Forum that her coping strategies have evolved over time. “I used to cry and endlessly overshare about trolling. That didn’t help. Then I went all stoic. That didn’t work either,” she said. “There are a few women journalists who have a secret support society where we can share our rage. Younger women tend to lose their cool and I find myself constantly private messaging people when I see things getting out of control. I urge them to take a bit of time out.”

Pulling back is one response to gendered abuse that is gaining momentum among women within online communities. The 2014 launch of a video platform built by women and aimed at women, in reaction to the very sexist and misogynistic comment threads pervading YouTube, highlights the appeal of safe spaces for women online. But this is not a realistic option for women journalists working within mainstream newsrooms, where engagement with broad audiences via popular social media channels is now essential.

So, if pulling back isn’t an option, what can be done? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has begun “social media defence” classes as an intervention, a strategy Jenna Price welcomed, saying media employers “…need to practice responsible corporate citizenship and ensure their staff have the social media skills AND the emotional support required…it needs policy, strategy and action.” (See “Nine recommendations for managing cybermysoginy” below).

However, if newsrooms themselves remain bastions of male domination, harassment and sexism, better management of the effects of cybermisogyny will not have a major impact on new moves to target women’s empowerment in, and through, the media.


1. Acknowledge the problem and take the impacts seriously

2. Provide specific training for women journalists to help them deal with cybermisogyny

3. Stimulate senior management awareness of the issues

4. Invest in community engagement management (including clear policies and guidelines for intervention, along with effective abuse reporting tools)

5. Devote editorial resources to coverage of these issues

6. Consider adding misogyny to comment moderation guildeline definitions

7. Dedicate more staff to understanding and performing moderation

8. Employ more senior women moderators/community managers

9. Advocate the uptake of abuse reporting tools like the Women Action Media initiative by social media companies

Photos by Tim Anger.

This article first appeared in the Trends in Newsrooms 2015 report. The report is free to members of the World Editors Forum and can be downloaded or ordered here.

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