The root cause of a sexist press

The media strives hard to keep up with a changing world. So why is it so behind the pace when it comes to diversity?

Journalism remains a white, predominantly male profession – a revelation that will come as no great shock to anyone who either reads a paper or who has spent any time in a newsroom. A 2016 survey found 94 per cent of the industry to be white, 86 per cent university-educated and 55 per cent male. This is something we have heard before, but these statistics should continue to shock us. The lack of equality in an industry of such influence is frankly unacceptable. It is also dangerous. The very body responsible for identifying what stories have a right to be told is suffering from a chronic lack of diversity. If editors do not believe that has a real world effect, then they are mistaken.

It is an issue that has been hashed and rehashed for decades. Although there have been some changes in newsrooms to make them more inclusive and to encourage diversity, women are still not making it to the upper ranks of senior management – despite making up the majority of journalism students. In 2016, even the British Press Awards were in on the act, shortlisting 94 men and just 20 women. Sadly this also reflects wider gender equality trends – with just one in ten of the most senior roles filled by women, according to one 2017 study.

One poll revealed female journalists end up occupying the lower end of the salary scale and find themselves stuck in junior management positions. Men however, are more likely to be propelled into senior roles. This kind of representation can be deceptive. Journalists might look around the newsroom and be pleasantly surprised to see a relatively even distribution of men and women – but how many of those women have roles of influence?

One explanation is senior editors and management tend to hire in their own image – the old boys’ club. While efforts have been made to bring greater transparency to hiring practices, the industry has historically thrived on nepotism, and undoubtedly continues to do so, albeit in a less contrived way.

Another theory is that women have been less able or willing to put in the long and inflexible working hours required to make it to the top ranks. Journalism is notorious for its anti-social hours and research has found women are much more likely than men to experience significant career interruptions in order to attend to their families’ needs.

But don’t these explanations feel distinctly tired to you? Journalism is not the same industry it was in years past. The birth of digital media should have revolutionised newsrooms. It drastically changed the way the public digests news, and caused a shift in industry working patterns as more publications invested in their online arms. It should have been the trigger for a complete overhaul in media work practices. So why are so many newsrooms still being run in the same way they were years ago?

News has never been a 9-to-5 business, so flexible working patterns would undoubtedly benefit the industry, while offering greater freedom to those who need it. Job shares are happening more and more, so why shouldn’t this be commonplace in journalism too? It could help usher more women into senior management, while offering up options for both men and women who want to prioritise projects, family or their lives outside of work.

Home working has become routine in digital workplaces. And journalism as a profession lends itself perfectly to this modern approach. Why, when so many newsrooms are run using digital resources, do employers insist on having a physical presence in the office? Journalism can be extremely solitary. It is rare that you collaborate with wider teams while working on a story in the early stages, so what difference does it make if you are working remotely? This would offer an opportunity for people who are unable to come to the office Monday to Friday – caregivers, those with health conditions, parents, the list goes on – to make valued contributions.

Perhaps, you might argue, change doesn’t occur overnight, especially for those publications that have been in print for decades. But even The New European – a brand spanking new paper – is guilty. On its website, it lists just six female contributors in its writers list, compared to 18 male. Of the total 23 contributors listed, just four are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (Bame). I was wrangled enough by this to ask Editor Matt Kelly what possible justifications he had for this disparity. Did the paper’s readership – the 48 per cent – not vote in equal parts, male and female, to remain? The paper is brand new, it has no insidious sexist working culture, or if it does – it has been hired in and not borne from decades of gender inequality in senior management. Kelly tells me the situation is not as bad as the website would have you believe, but it is something they are unhappy with and actively working to address.

But the issue is perplexing. What possible barriers could there be for getting more female writers on staff? Why in certain organisations are white, male voices prioritised over female or ethnically diverse opinions?

The National Union of Journalists wants to see media organisations forced to collect and publish employment data, including gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality and disability in terms of access to jobs, pay rates and employment status.

The arguments for this are strong. Not only would it make the issue impossible to ignore but it could also expose the reasons why we see so little diversity in the upper echelons of media organisations. Perhaps it would also incentivise more effective schemes to ensure equality and diversity are prioritised in the hiring process.

There is public appetite for greater transparency in both politics and press, so perhaps this is the way to enforce it. It would offer the industry an opportunity to regain its credibility and for the public to feel represented. It would undoubtedly set the tone for a wider debate on equality and diversity in the workplace.

However, we must accept the issue runs deeper than hiring practices alone. Financial barriers to entry in journalism remain incredibly high. NCTJ courses or Masters degrees are the preserve of the privilege and the unpaid internships that follow are only open to graduates who have the financial support to go unpaid for months at a time. Making sure these internships are paid would, at the very least, open the doors to candidates from more varied backgrounds.

Equality is an urgent issue, and I don’t pretend to have the answers. What I do know, is the media needs to wake up to the value of diversity. It needs to be taken very seriously and recognised as an asset. Just as workplace sexism is no longer accepted as normal, neither should an insular outlook. And we must continue to call it out. Gender equality is not about benefiting women. It is about fairness for both sexes. It is about challenging outdated ideas and workplace practices, going back to the drawing board and understanding where our weaknesses are. It is about producing quality work of integrity.

The enduring prevalence of white, male writers gravely limits the kind of journalism the industry is able to produce. How many important stories go untold because we are blind to them? The media industry has always been trend setting, but now it feels distinctly like many newsrooms are playing catch up. Diversity and equality should have been prioritised – and championed – years ago. No more excuses. Now, more than ever, it is time to rebel loudly against a homogeneous media.

Originally printed in The New European


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