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The Gender Of Journalism

Why is there a presumption that the gender of a woman undermines her ability to be an effective or successful journalist?

Rebekah Brooks was until recently hailed as a firebrand woman journalist – the first female editor of The Sun and Chief Executive Officer at News of the World. But along with the bouquets, Brooks has now had to deal with the brickbats for her involvement in the murky Murdoch phone-hack scandal. What’s interesting is that as quick as people were to hold her up as an example of a successful female journalist in a profession still dominated by men, they were as swift in trashing her as a ‘female’ editor who set morals and ethics aside while carrying out her journalistic duties. All news reports on Brooks always drive home her gender by highlighting her physical attributes, such as ‘the titian-haired Brooks,’ or referring to her as ‘Lady Macbeth’. The question is, is this misogynistic behavior only seen on foreign shores, or are female journalists in India, subject to the same prejudices?

Why is the distinction made between male and female journalists? Does the gender of a journalist colour her ability to report or comment? On the surface of things, it would seem that the world of Indian journalism has never had a glass ceiling when it comes to female journalists. But the term, ‘female journalist’ itself seems pejorative. And it is a label that clings automatically to media persons who happen to be female, often despite their insistence to be identified only as journalists. The gender prefix brings with it myriad connotations. And just like the idea of beauty, the idea of a woman also lies in the eyes of the beholder. Some posit women to be more compassionate and sensitive, some presuppose them to be frail, and some presume they are dumb because women can’t possibly have beauty and brains. And others see them as an easy target. But most importantly, there is an insinuation in the gender prefix, that a female journalist’s gender influences her journalistic skills; which is probably why many female journalists detest being distinguished as such.

After all, you don’t see their male counterparts being referred to with a similar gender prefix. Does it really make any difference if a story is being done by a female journalist as opposed to a male? Neerja Chowdhury, Nina Vyas, Tarun Tejpal, and Barkha Dutt give their take in the following audio clips.


It is not just the insinuation that a female journalist’s gender will determine her journalistic skills, which plagues women journalists. What does make a difference however, is the sexual harassment or prejudices which many female journalists face in their workplace.  As in most other professions, even in journalism which ironically should be commenting on ‘facts’ and ‘truth’, these cases and incidents are rarely if ever spoken of. Even if they are, it is usually off the record. A project report called ‘Status of Women Journalist in the Print Media’, (linkhttp://ncw.nic.in/pdfReports/Status%20of%20Women%20Journalists%20in%20India.pdf) compiled by the Press Institute of India for the National Commission for Women, also faced the same problem. Usha Rai, one of the first woman journalists of the country was steering this study. The report says on page 10 – “During personal interaction sexual harassment emerged as a major concern of most respondents. But when asked whether they had to put up with sexist remarks/gestures or if they had been sexually harassed in any way at their workplace or in association with their work, 22.7 per cent said they had, 8 per cent said they were ‘not sure’. And many others had either denied or refused to comment. An interesting finding is that, of those who had experienced sexual harassment, 31.5 per cent said it had ‘seriously’ undermined their confidence and affected their work, 24 per cent said it had mildly. But an alarming 41.3 per cent said it had had ‘no effect’.”

These findings show that sexual harassment is part of the work culture in media organisations in India, but women either do not know how to or for a wide variety of reasons choose not to do anything about it. Only 15.2 per cent of women who experienced sexual harassment had made a formal complaint.

After all, how many sexual harassment cases in the media do we know of? For a layperson, it is likely to be none. Those working in the media industry might be aware of some cases, but these are rarely spoken about and almost never reported. The same report mentions that there were two instances of harassment in Deccan Chronicle in Hyderabad and in both cases the women colleagues didn’t, or rather couldn’t muster up enough nerve to anything about it. In Bangalore too, a senior journalist named Praja Vani, working in a Kannada daily was unable to bring her aggressor to task as she did not receive any support from her women colleagues, leading to her ultimately having to resign.

The rare case when a woman refused to be a sitting duck was when Sabita Lakhar, chief-sub editor of the Assam daily, Amar Axom dared to ask for justice. In a time when nobody wanted to name names, she went ahead and called a press conference on how her Editor, Homen Borgahain was harassing her. Upon complaining to the Managing Editor, she was shown the door, according to Pamela Bhagat’s article, ‘Sexual harassment – An incurable male disorder or an ‘Eternal instrument of subordination?’

Internationally, we have the recent case of Lara Logan, CBS correspondent, who was reported to have been sexually assaulted while at work. She had stated that while that many of her female colleagues had similar experiences, they had never spoken out. “Women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well women shouldn’t be out there’. But I think there are a lot of women who experience these kinds of things as journalists and they don’t want it to stop their job.”

The flipside though is that many female journalists are accused and are indeed guilty of ‘exhibitionism’ in the hopes of either landing a job as a news anchor, or while trying to negotiate a higher salary? R Sukumar, Managing Editor Mint wrote in his editorial, (link – http://www.livemint.com/2011/07/30012617/A-media-obsession.html) “She got three times her current salary, for agreeing to leave the top two buttons of her shirt unbuttoned,” he said, referring to an anchor who had recently switched channels.

Swaminthan Aiyar says categorically that most business channels have more female anchors than male. Now this is a different kind of gender bias for sure!

But is it ‘bimbettification’ as Barkha puts it? Or is it just ‘starification of the journalist’ as Swaminathan says in this audio clip.

But while men claim that it is the physical attributes that get a female journalist where she is, it is the same gender attributes which constrain her in her career. A woman’s most productive and reproductive years are the same. In a profession where one fights against time to break the news before anybody else, you just can’t afford to while it away.  Motherhood demands that you stay out from your profession at least for a few months if not years; a hiatus which is not just seen as a handicap to professional advancement, but also as a sign of lack of dedication to your career. Perhaps it is the reason why there are so many single women in the media. Neerja Chowdhury when asked about the challenges that women face, touched upon this issue.

But despite the misogynistic behavior and perceived discrimination, journalism isn’t a male bastion anymore. Educated and competent women are flooding media houses and outshining their male counterparts in the interviews. Swaminathan Aiyar shares his experience of how he ended up hiring an entire team of almost all female journalists and just one man. Nina Vyas also shares with us why she feels a woman reporter is no less than any of her male counterparts.

One wonders whether what Peggy Seeger sang holds true anymore? Is it true that, “You’ve got one fault, You’re a woman, You’re not worth the equal pay”.

Or is it that female journalists today can para-phrase slightly and sing, “I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby. As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear. But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady. I’ll fight them as an engineer.”

Or in this case, as a journalist.

 

 

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