IT turns out that I’m a bit unusual (no laughing at the back please). I’m an editor, a columnist, a radio and television commentator. Oh, and I’m a woman.
The fact I come from a working-class background and didn’t go to university leaves me almost bewildered that I’ve somehow ended up where I am, because a new research suggests that gender in media and journalism is still very much a problem. The exception, as they say, proves the rule.
According to a Women in Journalism (WiJ) report on newspaper diversity, just 25 per cent of front-page bylines in June and July of this year belonged to women. The last time this study was carried out, in 2012, the figure was 22 per cent, showing that very little progress has been made.
The study also found that two-thirds of senior UK newspaper roles are held by men and that women are more likely to be assigned to fields such as showbiz and health, while men dominate coverage of politics, sport and major events like the London terror attacks and Grenfell Tower.
And the problem isn’t only in print. Ofcom recently reprimanded UK broadcasters for a “woeful” lack of diversity which created a “cultural disconnect” between those making and consuming television programmes.
The figures for senior roles held by women in broadcasting aren’t much better than in newspapers, at 39 per cent. Meanwhile, black and ethnic minority communities and people with disabilities are also underrepresented.
I often have a chuckle to myself – because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry – when I read self-reflective articles from journalists lamenting their poor judgement on issues such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s election; these soul-searching pieces often pledge to become more in tune with the population at large, to really get a grasp of what’s happening on the ground and how people think and feel.
It should be common sense, then, to realise that our media can’t possibly encompass all the ideas and beliefs held among a diverse population when those commissioning and writing much of the news are white men.
We’re often dismayed and disappointed when newspaper output is blatantly sexist, but we should focus less on encouraging editors to make different decisions and more on lobbying for structural changes in the newsroom if we want to see lasting change.
Sexist and racist content is a lot less likely if women and multiple ethnic communities are sitting around the editorial table. Sorry, white men, but it’s just not possible for you to see the world through those lenses; your life experience and sense of the world is very different from mine, and that affects the decisions we both make.
Women and ethnic minority representation in the newsroom and at senior levels of media would naturally alter the nature of the output, and make much more impact on solving the problem of misrepresentation on screen and in print. The Guardian’s performance in the WiJ study was better than many other titles, and it’s no coincidence that the editor is female, and its political editor position is held jointly by two women.
Wherever we women turn in this industry, it seems there is an obstacle to overcome. I now have an established career in journalism, but it didn’t come without a price. Having a public profile and working in those areas of journalism generally dominated by men – politics and sport – has been like sticking a target on me for social media’s trolls, and similar reports from other female journalists are endless.
It’s harder for us to excel in these areas of our chosen industry, and when we do it’s often met with sustained abuse and harassment throughout our working lives – mostly from men.
Solving this problem requires firm commitment from senior media executives and editors to address the imbalances. It’s positive to see the BBC’s Sarah Smith take over from Andrew Neil as host of the Sunday Politics programme, while across the pond in the US, broadcaster NBC has reportedly poached high-profile presenter Megyn Kelly from Fox, and her prime-time morning show debuts tomorrow. Kelly’s deal is said to be worth $18m, while Smith has said her salary is in line with Neil’s – a welcome revelation, given the recent scandal of pay inequality between male and female presenters at the BBC. Paying women less is a statement that they are not as valued as their male counterparts, but women like Kelly and Smith have just as much ratings potential.
Everyone in the media needs to take responsibility for this problem. Our democracy cannot be healthy unless all sections of society are given a voice. There is no room for excuses.