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How to Make the Newsroom Gender-Just

Lessons from the American Women’s Media Centre on amplifying women’s voices.

Written by Shalini Nair |
Updated: August 19, 2018 6:43:53 am
Cristal Williams, Women’s Media Centre Setting it right: Cristal Williams Chancellor.

On her recent trip to India, Cristal Williams Chancellor, from the US-based Women’s Media Centre, spoke to The Indian Express about adequate representation of women in newsrooms, gender pay parity, and the impact of the #MeToo movement on newsmedia. The centre, founded by feminist author Gloria Steinem and others, brings out several seminal reports on gender and the media including the “2018 Analysis of Gender & Oscar Nominations at a Glance” and the annual “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media”. Edited excerpts:

What are the ways to increase women’s representation in the newsroom?

Women form 51 per cent of US population but it is the men who form 62 per cent of the US media. This gender gap is a major issue. Newsrooms require both awareness of this issue and the intention to change it. Within newsrooms, it begins with hiring and retention of women, making sure that women have equal opportunities to the decision-making roles. This could start off with an internal survey on their numbers, the roles they play, and barriers to women within their workspace. These barriers could be sexism or the culture in general, which, for too long in the US media, has been the ‘old boys’ network’ wherein men traditionally held certain roles in the media and they are the ones telling the stories that impact the US population as a whole. For the media to be really credible, women’s voices, stories, and experiences have to be included.

How can women’s voices be amplified in the news media?

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We have to amplify women’s voices not just through the roles they hold in the newsroom but also as sources in the stories. Most experts quoted in the media tend to be men. We have created a database of over a thousand women experts on every kind of issue, be it global terrorism or anything else. Because all issues are women’s issues and not just those that deal with reproductive rights, motherhood, or the traditional domestic sphere. Our voices need to be represented in all aspects of society. Our voices are amplified through the stories we tell. Media plays an important role in shaping opinion and policy and women need to be part of that dialogue.

One impact of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements is the BBC coming clean on its gender pay gap, on how white male presenters accounted for a majority of its top earners. Has there been a similar admission in newsrooms anywhere across the globe?

No, there hasn’t. BBC has been at the forefront of this kind of transparency. The gender pay gap is not just in newsrooms but all across. In the US, women make 80 per cent of what men make. Women of colour make far less, black women make 63 per cent, the numbers become even more dire for Hispanic American women. Gender equity in terms of salary is critical. Women do the same work but do not receive the same pay as men. For corporate organisations, salaries are kept confidential and corporations have been able to hide behind this protection. The more the financial information becomes transparent, the easier it is to correct it.

Your recent report showed that women account for only 23 per cent of the total Academy Awards nominations in the non-acting categories this year. Is the fact of women speaking out leading to serious change or does this result in them being shunned further?

Part of the beauty of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements is that more actors feel that they can come forward and speak up about the disparity. There was a fear that they would be blackballed, their careers would stagnate if they did speak out. We are hoping that these movements will generate further conversations about the pay inequity, and the disparity between the roles that men and women get. In a recent survey that looked at women behind the scenes in decision-making roles, it was found that in the last 10 years, only 4 per cent of popular films in the US have been directed by women. Most women have been doing documentaries and movies that don’t make it to big screen, which brings recognition, nominations, and money.

Your report on the Status of Women of Colour in the US news media shows that such women represent just 6 per cent to 12 per cent of newsroom staff. India similarly has a severe under-representation in its newsrooms of Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations in general and SC / ST women in particular. Isn’t it time to bring in reservation in the newsroom and go beyond the tokenism of ‘diversity hires’?

In the US, too, this idea of quotas has been debated and there are arguments on both sides. Forty per cent of the US population are people of colour — African American , Asian American, Latin American. If the media has to be inclusive and representative, they have to include all those voices. Then there is the dual challenge of not only being a woman but also a woman of colour. Newsrooms need to stop making excuses about not being able to find experienced women of colour. They also need to ensure that such women, once hired, can be their true selves. They should not be made to feel the need to blend in or feel like they have to represent the male voice or be like their white counterparts. Only then can they can bring in their full experience. Many women journalists of colour say that they come to the newsroom with an intention to bring in some change but they cannot as they are forced to conform to a certain idea. Newsrooms have to allow these journalists to be themselves in addition to ensuring that they are part of their hiring, retention, and promotion policies.

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