Cracks in the glass ceiling: Female journalists fight to reach the top of the ladder


Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

In an industry dominated by women, why is it so hard for them to climb the ranks? And what does this mean for the everyday citizen?

Imagine a world where someone decides what you should and shouldn’t know about.

Imagine that person is nothing like you.

Newsflash: if you’re a woman, you don’t need to imagine.

From the days of runners relaying information across ancient Greece, someone has always decided what information gets passed on and what’s unimportant. For a long time now, this has been the role of journalists.

An explosion happens in some tiny country you’ve never heard of? You likely never will unless it makes the headlines.

So, what happens when the decision makers —the keepers of the news, the filters, the gatekeepers— what happens when they’re all the same?

Well you’ve seen it; nearly 70 per cent of senior managers in the Australian media industry are men.

While disappointing, this number is not that surprising; we’re used to seeing these kinds of statistics. The extent of the problem doesn’t really become clear until you pair this information with some other stats.

Like how 63.7 per cent of lower ranking journalists in the same study were female.

Or how academics are estimating that 70 per cent of journalism graduates are women.

So, if women are the majority, why do men hold the lions’ share of the power?

Well there’s the classic motherhood setback, for one.

“The choice between family and career in (senior positions) is much, much more stark for women… I think that is one of the really big structural reasons why you see that disparity at the top in journalism,” says ABC Chief Political Writer, Annabel Crabb.

“I know a lot of men that I started out with in journalism who went on to become editors and executive producers and very senior office holders and they have also managed to have families because they have wives who take over the kind of significant part of responsibility for families,” she says. “But the women that I know who have got to the top in media, much more commonly will either not have children at all, or they’ll move into those jobs once their children are kind of grown up”.

And of course, there’s always the exclusive boys’ clubs.

“The higher up you go, the less merit has to do with you taking the next step,” says The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello.

“It becomes about who you know.

“The kind of people who were in power 40 years ago were the kind of people who’d be mates with other white middle class men. And then they appointed the next level of powerful people who were also mates with white middle class men— and so on it goes.”

Many newsrooms still have a ‘boys’ club’ culture. (Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash)

What does this mean for journalism?

The identity and points of view of editors, managers and senior staff can have a pretty big influence on what gets published and what gets thrown away— or never touched to begin with. This leaves female journalists having to fight for women’s interests to be represented in the media.

Journalist Kirsten Drysdale described an “uphill battle” when she pitched a story about the advertising of ‘NovaSure’, a surgical device used to treat gynaecological conditions such as menorrhagia.

“Because it was (a gynaecological procedure/device) —which my boss sort of had no awareness of, no understanding of, didn’t even know what it was— it was a real uphill battle,” she says. “I did eventually get to write it, it just took quite a bit of convincing/explaining why it was newsworthy, whereas I think most women would have immediately understood it was newsworthy.”

“Stories that might have huge relevance to women —who are half the population— may not be considered newsworthy, because the men who are in control of making the editorial decisions don’t understand”.

“I don’t think it comes from a place of malice or disrespect or misogyny necessarily; I don’t think it’s anything like that. It’s just they don’t understand why this is an important story,” she says.

As gender issues become more and more blatant, everyone is becoming more conscious of what they really mean for the content that reaches our eyes.

“People who have a different perspective, because they grew up in different environments, and had different influences, judge everything differently,” says Chas Licciardello.

“They have a completely different perspective on everything: on foreign policy, on economics, on what’s important and what’s not.

“And I feel like that is the reason why it’s absolutely critical to have maximum diversity, not just gender diversity, but all kinds of diversity when it comes to both reporting and political reporting, and I think that it’s getting better but it needs to get better faster.”

Annabel Crabb provides an example of this, saying: “Childcare is a massive issue in Australia that affects the lives of a lot of women… and yet, it doesn’t really have that ‘page one sizzle’ a lot of the time and I think that’s not entirely unrelated to the fact that often the majority of people making decisions about what’s on the front page are not personally responsible for childcare.

“There’s nothing more powerful, that motivates your interest in a topic, like experiencing it firsthand, and that is entirely the argument for why the senior ranks of journalism and the senior ranks of policy decision makers should always consist of the broadest range of people possible because that is the best result for the audience.”

But it’s not just the audience that is affected by the lack of senior female representation in this female dominated industry. Women in journalism are facing problems in areas most men would never even need to think about.

An ABC journalist was kicked out of parliament for showing “too much shoulder”.

Female journalists are being sent rape and death threats, with finding an increase in online harassment this year, likely with COVID-19 to blame. This kind of harassment is especially common for women reporting in the sports arena, the most male dominated place in the industry.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance found that over 90 per cent of sports reporters are men.

A huge part of this issue comes down to stereotypes; stereotypes that are applied by the men at the top who get to dictate who gets to report on what.

And generally, women get to report on celebrity news and gossip, social issues, health and lifestyle, and retail. In fact, these are the only four topics in which female journalists dominate the field.

Female journalists are also more likely to quote female sources than their male co-workers. So, it’s not surprising that more women are quoted in news from the four female dominated categories than in news from other areas such as sport and politics.

That being said, male sources do outnumber female sources in Every. Single. Topic.

From this, we can learn that having a more even gender split in all fields of journalism will undoubtedly create a better chance for all voices to be heard in the media.

So how can we make that happen?

On an individual level, there are a few key things that young female journalists can do to give them the best shot at equality in the newsroom.

“My advice to young women joining media organisations is, you know, make sure that you talk to all of the women around you, make sure that you use those networks,” says Annabel Crabb. “It’s very important to gossip about how much everybody else is making and share everything, terrible I know.”

Kirsten Drysdale says: “To young journalists, I’d say be confident, back yourself and say yes to every opportunity.”

But this isn’t an individual problem. This is a global and social issue that reaches across just about every industry.

When there’s a hole in the ship, you don’t just bail out the water, you plug the hole.

To stop bailing out workplace sexual harassment, lack of childcare and unfair dress codes, we must plug the hole that is a male dominated senior staff; the best way to fix the gender problem on the whole, is to fix it at the top.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a straightforward process.

Many organisations use diversity quotas to ensure that their workers and senior management represent real Australians.

Annabel Crabb has written about gender quotas, including an experiment that proves their use.

She has worked for the ABC for much of her career and says: “I’ve never worked in an organisation where there are more powerful women and women in those big jobs. So, it is possible, it just doesn’t happen at most newspapers, for instance, and often commercial networks as well.”

The ABC uses quotas to achieve diversity of all kinds, including gender, culture and ability.

A total of 48.9 per cent of executive roles at the ABC are filled by women today, and the organisation aims to achieve 50 per cent by 2022.

Overall, the ABC workforce is 54 per cent women.

These numbers include the Chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, whose selection made quite a splash because, as addressed in the profile feature written for ABC online, the original list of candidates was all male.

The ABC has been acting on this for a while now and the quotas are working, but they take time to make real change.

“Whenever you have a process of transition like this, usually, the first people who come through are on a hiding to nothing, because… they don’t necessarily have the right training or the right experience to be able to make the best of their position,” says Chas Licciardello.

So, quotas are good but, what should we do to make real, long-term changes in content creation?

Well, here’s what The Chaser did.

“We got these talented young comedians, got them on staff, and just let them progress at their own rate,” says Chas. “And they weren’t all women but we definitely made a point of trying to get women, and trying to get people who weren’t white, and trying to get people from different backgrounds.

‘Those people that we hired are the people who ended up taking over The Checkout’. (Image source: Twitter.)

“In TV, and in radio, you often just parachute people in… and then there’s no chemistry, they don’t work well together. It’s a disaster, and we wanted to avoid that.

“So the way we decided to do it was to grow our own, so to speak.

“I went to the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and I would watch as many shows from unknown people as possible and then when I thought they were they were ready… we brought them on and then let them grow at their own rate.

“Because let me tell you, no one succeeds when they first start TV. When you throw someone in the deep end, they suck, they always suck; we sucked, everyone sucks and if you force someone to try and compete straight away, they’re going to fail.”

So how do we make sure fresh female journalists can climb the media ladder and… not suck?

 The Chaser took a somewhat unconventional approach, but the strategy has paid off.

“Those people that we hired are the people who ended up taking over The Checkout. Those people were the entire show; they were Ben Jenkins, they were Zoe Norton-Lodge, they were Kirsten Drysdale, they were Scott Abbott, they were Alex Lee”.

Kirsten Drysdale said that when she started working with The Chaser, it was “quite daunting… because they were a very high profile, all male Australian comedy group who, for their careers up until that point hadn’t had any women involved”.

“That was a great example of how the tide has turned and the mood has shifted, because they were actively looking to get some more women involved with their team and with their work. And I think it’s paid off for them,” says Kirsten.

While training from the bottom up this way might be the ideal, it certainly makes the diversification of the media a longer process.

“The people from the next wave will have come from the bottom up, and they will be exceedingly good at what they do. It takes usually five or ten years to begin a process of trying to transition to more diversity for it to really, really pay off in terms of the product,” says Chas. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there, and it can’t happen fast enough.”