South Africa: Surviving the trade in the newsroom as a woman

Date: June 14, 2012
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Johannesburg, 13 June – I vividly remember 18 years ago, when I joined a big daily newspaper in the centre of Johannesburg, South Africa as a news reporter. A woman photographer bounced up to me with an unusual introduction: “You have a little baby, don’t you?” I said yes.

Next, she shared that she had a baby. Having a baby meant she had to learn a few tricks of the trade to survive trade in the newsroom as a woman.

“May I give you a bit of advice? Whatever you do, if your baby is sick, don’t ever tell the news desk, that’s why you have to leave. Just say you are sick and leave, actually better still, say you have period pains – then they want to get rid of you as quickly as possible, because they don’t know how to react to that.”

I wondered if she was exaggerating. I had only a few years in journalism under my belt and only a year of experience as a mother. She was right. At one point, I forgot the advice and told the news desk that my baby was sick and I had to take her to the doctor. The response? “What time are you coming back? What time will you file your story?”

What I did notice however, is that if a male reporter said he had to dash off to watch his child swim at a school gala, there were beaming smiles all round: “What a good father!”

Let us fast track to 2012, I have a 19 year old daughter, the same one who had a temperature back then. She is studying media at a local university and thinks she might like to be a journalist one day. I wonder if I will soon be imparting the same advice as that I got from the female photographer.

My struggle is one, which many female journalists grapple with in the newsroom. The question is, since my first days in the newsroom have things changed, male and female attitudes alike?

I’m not sure how much has changed but some organisations or newsrooms are better than others. It is possible that some organisations or newsrooms are better than others.

At my last journalism job, amaBhungane (M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism), there were more women investigators than men. None of them were mothers so I cannot say whether there is any discrimination on that front. However, recruiters are required to be aware of gender imbalances when interviewing candidates for internships.

Gender Links research titled Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Media (2009) among other things found out that women in the media in South Africa are grossly under represented on boards of directors (38%), top management (25%) and senior management (35%) of newsrooms.

But are added numbers of women, then be all and end all?

What I did notice in general is that the males of the species are more confident and assertive than women. They demand more attention, and the result is they get more attention.

Now I am engaged in research at Wits Journalism, called The State of the Newsroom in South Africa. Two kinds of analysis are imperative.

One is to examine different demographics, race, gender and age. It is going to be interesting to do some quantitative analysis of women’s representation at all levels in the newsroom including middle and top management, editors and boards.

This is a numbers game, and while this is important – it’s not the whole story.

To get a full picture about whether women are discriminated against in the newsroom and in journalism in general, qualitative of narrative stories such as what happened to me 19 years ago.

I can only talk from my own experience. I have editors in the past who have taken me seriously, and I have had editors who have not. I had one boss who said to me: “Let’s face it, you can’t do what (let’s call him, Simon) Simon can do, can you?” He said this about a news editing function, and without having given me a chance at doing it there were many assumptions therein about my ability or inability.

On the other hand, I have had another editor telling me I’m too “experienced and qualified” to be in the newsroom. Shocking, I thought that is what journalism needed, experienced and qualified women and men.

Nonetheless, my experiences are not overt, and my experiences of sexism have been far and few between. They have also been subtle besides the discrimination against young mothers. Being a feminist I am surprised at myself for not having reflected more on myself as a woman journalist. I have always thought of myself as just a journalist. It was an interesting exercise then to be asked to reflect upon it.

There are many stories that remain to be told especially on how to survive the trade. Maybe these are the stories that need to be shared with female journalists, the tricks of the trade, so that they are well prepared for the profession.

Dr Glenda Daniels is a senior researcher at Wits Journalism, a media freedom activist and has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having worked at various newspapers in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


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