In newsrooms gender inequality is still rife with women journalists struggling under the glass ceiling

Colleen Lowe Morna

Colleen Lowe Morna

World Press Freedom Day is a day to remember the importance of jealously guarding the hard-won gains of an independent media. But how free is the media, when 13 years into our new democracy it is still so unrepresentative of the people whom it serves?

This is the critical question posed by Glass Ceiling Two: An Audit of Women and Men in South African Newsrooms.

A project of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) the second phase of the study, being released today, has put some stark numbers to what the first study, released on Women's Day last year, revealed: a host of barriers to the advancement of women in the media profession.

Glass Ceiling One found that, despite having a constitution that entrenches equal rights, "discriminatory practices, structural inequalities, cultural factors, prejudices, patriarchy and sexism are still alive and well in South African newsrooms.

"These are clearly prohibiting South Africa's women journalists from realising their potential."

The subsequent audit of women in newsrooms, conducted in collaboration with Gender Links, involved administering a factual questionnaire to the SABC, the Citizen, KayaFM, Media 24, Primedia, Sapa, the Independent Group of newspapers, Johncom and the Mail and Guardian between September and December last year.

This study, which covered 4364 employees (about half of all journalists) found that with 45percent of newsrooms' staff complements being women (compared to 33percent in a 1995 study), there was a progressive move towards achieving gender balance.

But black women, who constitute 46percent of the population, only account for 18percent of newsroom staff (compared to 45percent of the population and 28percent of newsroom staff in the case of black men and four percent of the population and 28percent of newsrooms in the case of white men).

At R184387 a year, the annual average salary of women in newsrooms is 21percent less than the average annual salary of men (R233737). While the income differential between white men and black men in newsrooms is narrowing, black women earn, on average 25percent less than white men in newsrooms. These salary figures, more than any other, reflect the gender gaps in newsrooms. They are not due to formal discrimination between women and men, but rather reflect the lower positions that women occupy, and the lower paid areas of work in which they predominate.

Women occupy less than 30percent of top management posts and constitute one out of three senior managers in newsrooms. Conversely, they comprise 48percent of junior managers and almost 70percent of all semi-skilled workers. While black men constituted 16percent of top and senior managers in newsrooms in 1999 in 2006, this percentage has increased to 23,5percent. On the other hand, black women account for a mere six percent of top and senior management in newsrooms.

While there are now roughly equal proportions of women and men in the editorial divisions of newsrooms, women dominate the lowest paying administrative categories while men make up 86percent of the better paid technical category. Male journalists dominate in all of the hard beats (politics, economics, investigative reporting, crime and sport) in which promotion chances are better, while women journalists predominate in the "soft" entertainment, education and general reporting categories.

In the first phase of the study the term "old boys' club" and "network" featured repeatedly in explanations why women are overlooked for senior posts.

"They are simply not seen as equals by the vast majority of men, who still hold the reins of power in all news organisations," one respondent said.

"Examples: Women are patronised and their opinions do not appear to be taken as seriously as those of men. This can be subtle, like jokes made at their expense when they give their opinions, or teasing. It seems friendly and even affectionate, but it is actually demeaning."

While governments in southern Africa have committed themselves to achieving gender parity in all areas of decision making by 2015, none of the media houses in the study could point to specific targets for ensuring gender equality. South Africa now has 42percent women in cabinet; 40percent in local government and 32percent in parliament. Judged by these measures, the media has lagged behind.

Having more women decision-makers in newsrooms will not necessarily lead to more being written for and about women.

However, Glass Ceiling Two establishes a positive correlation between having women in senior and top management positions and hiring higher numbers of women journalists.

The Global Media Monitoring Project, in which South Africa participated in 2005, showed that women journalists were more likely to consult female opinion in their reporting (28percent female sources) compared to their male counterparts (19percent of female sources). Overall this study found that women constitute 21percent of news sources globally (26percent in South Africa).

As the torch bearer of freedom and fairness in society, the media has a duty to lead by example in ensuring a level playing field in its backyard and in the content it produces.

As the media issues challenges to governments on World Press Freedom Day, it will be challenged from within its own ranks to demonstrate that freedom starts at home.

lColleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links, which partnered Sanef in the Glass Ceiling Two Study.