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The 7.4% Challenge – tips for addressing the gender imbalance in German local media and beyond

2021-07-02. It’s hard to sugar coat this fact: in a 2019 survey of 108 editors-in-chief in German regional media, only 8 were women, or to put it another way, 7.4%. A session at the recent Newsroom Summit delved into this issue.

by Nick Tjaardstra nick.tjaardstra@wan-ifra.org | July 2, 2021

(main photo courtesy of ProQuote)

When German media equality organisation ProQuote looked more widely at management roles in media roles, the picture was not much better. The ‘Frauenmachtanteil’ – loosely translated as the ‘Women-power-factor’ – stood at 10.4%.

That’s almost three times less than the leading national press titles in Germany.

women power factor in German media

(Graphic shows regional media in Germany with the lowest percentage of women in management positions)

For ProQuote’s Chair Edith Heitkämper, speaking on 9 June 2021 at our Newsroom Summit, the first question is why?

“We had sixteen very large interviews with women from editor-in-chief to a very normal editor working for a regional newspaper. And those women spoke about many, many things that are happening in the newsrooms and what was very interesting is that it seems in many newspapers, regional newspapers, there is no consciousness of equal distribution of power. So, they are doing it the way they’ve been doing it for 20 or 30 years, and it was kind of normal that the editor-in-chief was male and so the next one was male as well”

As she explains, this lack of awareness is one of the key problems. Also the challenge of combining private and work life. And of course, occasionally just everyday sexism.

The old boys’ club still exists.

“Some told us that the editor-in-chief and two or three other men were spending the holidays together with their families and things like that. So, it was kind of a network and women could not really do much about it.”

And it’s exacerbated by the old notion of an editor who refuses to sleep until the newspaper is put to bed.

“Maybe now the editor-in-chief who went to the newspaper at eight o’clock in the morning, or maybe at 10 and stayed until 10 o’clock at night until the newspaper was ready… got printed. That’s going to change, or that’s changing because of the online editions. And so that’s why the whole position is being changed and can be more flexible, or two people sharing a job or whatever.”

Reasons for hope

As Heitkämper says, the shift to digital allows more flexible working practices. The huge growth in digital subscriptions during the Corona crisis has shifted priorities and lessened the importance of the print deadline. Indeed it seems highly unlikely that editors-in-chief were up late in the evening in summer last year, pinning front page mockups to the wall.

Another small point is that the number of female deputy editors-in-chief is 16.5%, so there the numbers for the top job should at least improve a tiny bit in coming years.

More reason for hope are the trends at the leading titles in Germany, which ProQuote measures every 6 months.

“The average of women in decision-making roles has been rising, which makes us positive that our work may be important and may have changed a little bit. So from a very, very low average of women in decision-making, there is growth from 13.7% up to at least one-third or 28.3%. So, there is hope, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Practical steps that every newsroom can adopt

When speaking at the event, Heitkämper was joined by her ProQuote colleagues Stine Eckert, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, Wayne State University, and Karin Assmann, Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Georgia’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication, both German but based in the USA. They spoke about the results of their more detailed, qualitative interview-based study, and you could summarise some of their combined advice as follows:

1) Personal development

The pipeline is full, as Assmann says, “by 2017, about seven years ago, more than half of freelance journalists were women and 44 to 60% of public broadcast journalists were women.” So why are they not floating to the top? She suggests one reason could be that women have such a big challenge to emulate male role models – the way it was always done. Instead we need to recognise a different kind of leadership and “women need more space to develop that, and kind of get everyone on board with that, and to recognise that it was not a sign of weakness, but just a different leadership style.”

2) Programmes that promote women

To some extent this is about networks and the role that ProQuote itself plays in Germany. As Eckert says, “ProQuote has empowered women to network and to promote each other and to keep especially a public eye and public pressure on women in leadership, in Germany”. And indeed in individual newsrooms there are women’s networks, which are a response to the so-called old boys network or men’s network, where there’s lots of relationship building, role models, mentorship, and an emphasis on the collective and institutional effort and women helping each other.

But, as she says, we should take note that “there’s often a disproportionate burden put on women who make it into leadership in order to act in a very particular way to help other women”.

3) Flexibility, more agile management culture, flat hierarchies, teamwork, etc.

In Corona times, Heitkämper notes that some women in media were saying “Okay, for the first time, I’m much more flexible, although I have to organise a lot around with my work and family and my husband and children, everything, but still I’m feeling much more flexible. And for the first time, my editor-in-chief at the newspaper finds out about more flexibility and is thinking about different working arrangements.”

Another option might be two people sharing the top job, though we should note that out of 10 teams that ProQuote found with a joint editor-in-chief role, none had two women, despite seven with two men.

The challenge ahead

As Eckart points out, “we barely have women of other backgrounds.”

“There was no editor in chief in Germany who identified as Black or African-American or having a background that’s non-white or who is a Muslim, or who is coming from one of the big language communities we have in Germany, from Turkey, or from Poland, or from Russia.”

Of course, ProQuote is focused mainly on gender equality, although they are starting to branch out. And the same issue of course applies to men as well, exacerbated by the lack of measurement of statistics on ethnicity in newsrooms across Europe.

From our perspective at WAN-IFRA, the goal is to make the business case for more diverse leadership. In other words, to show that having influential voices in the newsroom with diverse backgrounds can be a huge advantage when you start to reach out to new audiences. ‘Audiences-first’ is a core philosophy of our GNI-funded programme Table Stakes Europe.

Asssmann points out the risk that, for example, “women when they were being hired, were being told we have a female audience, so we need to hire more women” – and that may not be attractive as an upcoming journalist. But the fact remains that new diverse audiences mean more subscribers, leading to the real diversity question: “how does this actually intersect with our revenue goals?”

If you’d like to make a suggestion for a webinar or roundtable on any of the points raised above, please do get in contact!

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