Michele Weldon

Why the Paucity of Women in Media is a Global Crisis

The bad news is I will be 126 years old when women reach parity in government, politics, business and non-profit leadership in the United States, according to a distressing and depressing report that came out last week from the Women's Media Center. "The Status of Women in the US Media" states fairness will arrive in 2085 if we continue at this rate of change. 

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Women in Op-Eds

In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a 2002 blockbuster written by and starring a woman who was given her big fat Hollywood break by another more connected woman, the paternal grandmother periodically erupts into an unintelligible rage about the war between the Turks and the Greeks. She is quickly calmed with a pat on the head and reverts to being the silent figure in the back of the room.

Such is the pattern, in the past couple of weeks, of the latest round of indignation in journalism circles triggered by an e-mail campaign by Susan Estrich to have more women's voices in the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times (especially her own).

It began with some blatantly poor sportswomanship by Estrich who, after making callous remarks about the health of Michael Kinsley, an editor of the Los Angeles Times' opinion and editorial pages who has Parkinson's disease, threatened to start a web site to "out" his gender bias. Her methods raised the ire of many journalists, including those who sympathized with her essential point, that too few women are writing the leading opinion pieces.

An avalanche of sister soul-searching ensued, producing fiery dialogue, copious columns, television pundit fodder, blog blahblah, listserv swapping and conference topic firewood. After a vitriolic exchange between Estrich and a detractor, the team of Cynthia Allen and Lynn Kinney – from the Women in the Newsroom e-newsletter – called the back-and-forth "the verbal equivalent of small girls pulling each others' hair."

Meanwhile, as in the movie, nobody outside the family seems to grasp the content of the reactive noise-making.

Readers and fans of many columnists wonder why we're making a fuss. Aren't opinions published in Grade-A newspapers on the basis of merit, not gender? Isn't it an odd coincidence that mostly men write them? Some editors may be waiting until we all go back quietly to our corners so they can return to publishing as usual, not worrying about who writes what and how often.

That means all those producing the sound and the fury about the silencing of women are in danger of simply returning to the back of the newsroom. They shouldn't.

More mainstream-media soap boxes

While differing on whether they support Estrich's specific tactics, most of the people who have written about the incident agree that we need more women on the big-time media soap boxes.

In the first nine weeks of 2005, 10.4 percent of columns in The Washington Post opinion pages were written by women. At The New York Times, where Gail Collins is at the helm of the editorial pages, it's 16.9 percent. The Los Angeles Times, where the opinion pages are headed by Michael Kinsley (the target of the Estrich attacks and at the eye of the latest hurricane), nearly 20 percent of the editorials written by women.

The noise, meanwhile, is far from news. "The fact that women are articulating feelings of being shut out is so far from radical," said Jill Nelson, author, columnist for niaonline.com and former Washington Post magazine staff writer.

Almost two years ago to the day, journalist Caryl Rivers, in a commentary for Women's eNews, wrote: "Women's voices aren't heard and that de-legitimizes women, which in turn deepens the silence ... From opinion pages to brainy magazines to journals of opinion, women's voices are more muted than they have been in years."

"We've been talking about this for 30 years," said Lakshmi Chaudhry, senior editor of AlterNet.org. "Certain kinds of women who have certain kinds of things to say that are OK with the old boys network get to have these positions."

The talk about the "quota of one" at papers and magazines where journalists such as Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, Anna Quindlen, Ellen Goodman and Anne Applebaum fight the good fight is not new.

In fact it's old, like the war that the Greek grandma can't stop talking about.

More than a 'kerfluffle'

This latest chapter in Our Big Fat Op/Ed Wailing has to amount to more than a "kerfluffle" as Maureen Dowd of The New York Times called it.

It can't be that Applebaum of The Washington Post is a token and that this is nothing more than what she called "a storm in the media teacup." (She wrote in her Post column about feeling "lonely," as well as "self-conscious and vaguely embarrassed" to be the only woman on the opinion pages when she looks out and sees "so many excellent women around me at the newspaper.")

The cry for more space must be seen as more than a "hissy fit" as columnist Heather MacDonald wrote.

To gain visibility, Women's eNews, organizations, listervs and blogsters are out there working to get noticed.

"We are recruiting women opinion writers, dispensing tips on how to write and submit articles and letting editorial editors know where they can find authoritative female voices on a variety of topics," said Rosemary Armao, president of Journalism and Women Symposium, a national organization of more than 250 women working in print, broadcast, new media and academia.

Promoting national syndications

Holly Sklar, op-ed columnist for Knight Ridder newspapers and Tribune Information Services, said pushing women who are already doing the work at a regional level into national syndication and larger media venues is a solid solution.

"There are a lot of women all over the country who write columns at the regional level," Sklar said. "There are very powerful columnists who are certainly ready for the big leagues and more effort needs to be made to promote them."

At the "Women and the Media Conference" this past Saturday in Cambridge, Mass., hosted by The Center for New Words, Nelson said the solution is "cross-pollinating" efforts with a continued push for space for women in the established press as well as in Internet news outlets and blogs.

The Web blogs so popular with Generation Y – and now deemed worthy of press credentials by the White House – are the cyberspace answer to individual newsletters, cable-access shows and ham radio. All of these offer a wide-open range for opinion makers to bypass gate-keeping editors who seem to "just say no" to the women who come along.

Others agree with her.

"Given how corporate media is, for us to expect The New York Times to change is not going to happen," said AlterNet's Chaudhry. "We need to empower ourselves with blogs. Not only will we have our voices heard but we have access to the kind of women we want to read it."

Female bloggers need to link to each other and other outlets of women's opinions, print journalists need to support each other's editorial efforts and keep making noise by sending in queries, well-researched and written columns and knocking on the big doors at least as often as do the men.

Instead of disappearing into the back of the room again, we must push the issue. Though many female journalists are opining 1,000 illuminated points of view in the media galaxy, unless we cluster our stars together into a fireball, we will not be seen by the major telescopes.

The Gendered Newsroom

Ambition defies the boundaries of gender. Opportunity is less democratic.

For women working in daily newspapers across the country, the crawl toward the goal post of equity continues. The numbers of women on the staffs of daily newspapers in 2003 increased minutely to 37.23 percent of newsroom employees, according to the annual ASNE Newsroom Employment Census released Tuesday by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The meager improvement from 37.05 percent after a two-year decline in numbers of women in newsrooms forces us to decode the writing on the wall and choose the appropriate cliche: Is it "slow and steady wins the race?" Or "quit while you still can?"

Cassandra West, editor of WomanNews, a Wednesday section at the Chicago Tribune, said the study shows the profession is a long way from fair representation of 51 percent women in newsrooms.

"I'm not hopeful that we'll ever have those kinds of numbers, but the need to have more women analyzing, reporting and shaping news coverage is as important as the need to have more women in government, medicine, law and all other professions," West said.

Guys Still Corner Upper Management

According to the latest ASNE survey of 927 U.S. daily newspapers, men continue to dominate corner offices of upper management. Only 34.2 percent of supervisors are women, the study showed. With 65.8 percent male supervisors, men outnumber women supervisors almost 2 to 1. How can that not affect decisions made about what stories to cover and how?

The position of copy/layout editor is more gender-balanced with 41.4 percent of those jobs held by women, a minuscule gain from 41 percent female copy editors the year before. Twenty-two percent of women working in newsrooms are on the copy desk, which has been true for the past three years. Eighteen percent of men working in newsrooms are on the copy desk, unchanged for the past five years.

Though more women work as reporters than at any other position (with 49 percent of female newsroom employees working as reporters), there are still fewer female than male reporters. Only 39.6 percent of reporters are women, a blip of an increase from 39.5 percent female reporters in newsrooms, according to the report on 2003.

The photo department appears to be the least accommodating to women. Photos appearing in newspapers are almost three times more likely to be shot by a male photographer. Only 26.1 percent of the photographers in newsrooms in 2003 were women, another marginal increase from 25.9 percent the previous year. Only 7 percent of women working in newspapers are employed as photographers.

Considering this paucity, it is particularly sweet that two female photographers won Pulitzer Prizes this year; Cheryl Diaz Meyer at The Dallas Morning News for breaking news photography and Carolyn Cole at the Los Angeles Times for feature photography.

The annual ASNE newsroom census, established in 1978, has marked the climb in minority employment of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans over the past 25 years. The census only began to include the breakdown of women working in newsrooms in 1999. In the industry's admirable and necessary aim to achieve diversity, the inclusion of women is seen as an afterthought, 21 years late.

"Women have a world view, a personal view and what I believe is a much-needed human view of how we live and how everything is connected. So having as many women at the table in all areas of journalism is essential," West said.

But for women in journalism something goes awry between studying for journalism and working in it. Women represent more than 70 percent of students in journalism schools or at universities with journalism or communication programs. In the newsroom, however, that percentage has been cut in half.

"There's something broken with the system if almost two-thirds of the people who are studying journalism are female and less than half of the journalists working in newsrooms are women" said David Nelson, associate professor and chair of the newspaper department at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

I grew up with the fictional role models of newspaper reporters Brenda Starr and Lois Lane. But when I noticed that most bylines belonged to men, I saw journalism as male-dominated. Even the designation of "soft" and "hard" news appeared to divide coverage into female and male camps.

Beyond this most recent report, several studies have pointed to the woeful representation of women in newsrooms in positions from entry level to management. A 2002 survey conducted for the American Press Institute and The Pew Center For Civic Journalism showed that 64 percent of all women said they saw their opportunities for advancement blocked by sexism. It also found that only 31 percent of the women surveyed said they will likely be promoted to the next logical position of their newspaper, compared to 42 percent of the men.

Does this imbalance of gender affect what shows up in the newspaper and who gets quoted on what kinds of stories? We can only draw that conclusion. The Readership Institute at Northwestern University's Media Management Center showed that in 3,500 front-page stories, male sources outnumbered female sources 3 to 1. Women are more likely to be quoted on stories about health, home, food, fashion, travel and education. Men, however, are most likely to be quoted on stories about politics, business, religion and science.

The goal is not to add more women to the cubicles because it is fair.

Today we can look to major newspapers across the country and see strong, talented women at the helm: Ann Marie Lipinski at the Chicago Tribune; Sandra Mims Rowe at The Oregonian, Julia Wallace at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deborah Howell at Newhouse News Service, Amanda Bennett at the Philadelphia Enquirer, to name some. In hundreds of newspapers, we see female bylines from datelines across the globe in all sections of the paper.

Their courageous and hard-earned ascent is not just politically correct, it is critical to achieve balanced, fair and inclusive coverage of a complex, changing society. As reporters, photographers, layout designers, editors and managers of news outlets, women add a different tempo to the chorus of voices, a different vision. It took Gail Collins to bring mammograms to the editorial page of The New York Times.

Women have needs for information on issues from public policy to private healthcare that differ from those of male readers. To respond, we need to race toward parity in employing and promoting women at our country's newspapers so ambition can meet opportunity half way.

Michele Weldon is an assistant Professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and is second vice president of Journalism and Women Symposium. She is the author of the memoir, "I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman," and "Writing to Save Your Life: How to Honor Your Story Through Journaling," both from Hazelden Publishing.


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