Jul 1 2001

Power Shortage for Media Women

Studies document absence from influential roles

The New York Times (8/22/99) declared the glass ceiling “shattered” when Hewlett Packard’s Carly Fiorina became the third female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But if they were looking for conflicting evidence, they could start in their own backyard. As a variety of recent studies show, women continue to face a substantial glass ceiling in the media industry itself.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors 2001 Newsroom Census, women are only 34 percent of daily newsroom supervisors; women of color hold a mere 3 percent of these positions, ASNE’s Bobbi Bowman told Extra!.

There are even fewer women in management in the broadcast arena: Women in television are only 24 percent of news directors and 14 percent of general managers, as reported in the 2000 Radio-Television News Director Association/Ball State University Survey. In radio, 20 percent of news directors and 13 percent of general managers are female.

If women’s lack of newsroom parity seems jarring, the situation is even more bleak in media’s executive suites and boardrooms, as documented in a recent Annenberg Public Policy Center study of Fortune 1000 media and telecom companies (“Progress or No Room at the Top?: The Role of Women in Telecommunications, Broadcast, Cable and E-Companies,” 3/01).

Though media put a gender-equitable face forward to the public (44 percent of network and national cable news anchors are female), women make up only 10 percent of executives and 12 percent of corporate board members of media/entertainment companies, Annenberg found. In news divisions, one fifth of executives are women.

Even these surprisingly low numbers, the report says, “could actually overstate women’s participation in top-level decision-making.” That’s because female executives in news and other media industries are typically concentrated in communications, public relations, human resources and government relations divisions, not typically considered power-centers. When it comes to executives with “clout titles”–positions defined in the study as having “the highest level of power within an organization,” from executive vice president to chair and CEO–Annenberg found just one woman at this level in media companies, and none in network news.

Shaping society’s attitudes

Access to professional opportunities is itself an important equal rights issue. But when women are denied power as media leaders, there is even more at stake, as the International Women’s Media Foundation explains (2/01):

Whoever controls assignments, whoever decides how a story is going to be covered, whoever decides what placement that story gets in a newspaper or over the airwaves, is not only shaping the content of news, but is deciding what readers and listeners know and how they know it. Media leaders are not just industry leaders, they have the power to shape society’s attitudes.

Several studies suggest that when women journalists have decision-making power, women are taken more seriously, and appear more often, in news content. When the White House Education Fund did a study (8/00) of coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s short-lived Republican presidential bid, it found that female reporters were more likely than their male colleagues to describe Dole’s position or record on the issues. Male journalists were more likely to report male candidates’ issue positions, and to describe Dole’s personal traits.

The World Association for Christian Communication took a broader look at gender and media in “Who Makes the News: Global Media Monitoring Project 2000.” To get a snapshot of a day in the life of the world’s media, analysts from 70 countries coded the numbers of women presenting, reporting or appearing in their local print and broadcast news outlets on February 1, 2000. Among the many results were the finding that female reporters feature women as news subjects 24 percent of the time, while men do so 18 percent of the time.

Overall, the study found that women–half the population–are only 18 percent of the world’s news subjects. (That number was slightly higher in North America, where women are 25 percent of news subjects.) Since the study’s definition of “news subjects” includes individuals featured in photographs, and since media often use visual images of women in decorative ways, women’s substantive presence in news content might be even lower than these statistics suggest.

Margaret Thatcher, blonde

The experience of women working in media illustrates how women’s active presence in the newsroom can affect media content. In an interview for the Washington Press Club’s Women in Journalism Oral History Project, veteran journalist Virginia Pitt described why a certain male wire service editor used to remove sexist copy from wire stories: “He’d say, ‘I don’t know what this means, but I think you’re going to yell at me if I put it on the wire, so I’ll take it out.’ He never really got it, but he knew there was something wrong, and he knew it was going to make me mad, so he didn’t put it in.”

Other times, Pitt’s job title allowed her to excise sexist copy. Once, when Pitt was a supervisor at Associated Press, the foreign desk sent her an article with the lead, “Margaret Thatcher, a peaches-and-cream blonde and former education minister, was elected prime minister of Britain today.” When she sent it back to the male foreign desk editor asking for a rewrite, a shouting match ensued. “They liked it. They thought that was a good lead…. I said, ‘I’m not putting peaches-and-cream blonde on the wire.’ You wouldn’t dream of–I mean, what are you going to call Winston Churchill? A ruddy-complexioned…?” In the end, the foreign desk editor never understood or accepted why the lead needed to be changed, but he changed it anyway–because Pitt was his superior.

Decades later, women are still having similar experiences. As part of the UNESCO program “Women Make the News 2001,” about 100 media organizations across the world gave women control of their newsrooms for one day. A Women’s Enews story (4/6/01) described the outcome at the Wichita Falls Times Record News, where “a heated news argument erupted over the choice of the day’s top story: The men wanted a police story about a peeping tom; women wanted a story about women fighting for their rights…. The women finally won, but only because they held the key positions on that day.”

Of course, simply bringing more women to the table will not eliminate all sexism in the news. After all, it was New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino who wrote about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s “modest hemlines” and dress size in a front-page profile (12/18/00). Nor would a wealth of pro-women’s rights stories automatically appear; it was Ginia Bellafante who wrote Time’s “Is Feminism Dead?” hit piece (6/29/98), USA Today columnist Amy Holmes who attributed mass sexual assaults of women in Central Park last summer to “almost consensual sexual play and roughhousing and exhibitionism” (Dateline NBC, 6/20/00), and New York Times op-ed writer Maureen Dowd (6/7/00) who summarized women’s history this way: “Women demand equality. Girls just want to have fun. Ladies long to loll about.”

But media content will never be reflective of the communities it serves unless the gender and racial composition of newsrooms, executive suites and boardrooms reflect that of the public. Women are half of the American population, but they are only a blip on the radar in upper echelons of media companies, where news priorities are set. As Laurence Pantin wrote of “Women Make the News 2001” (Women’s Enews, 4/6/01), giving women decision-making jobs in media “is not just a question of equity, but also a question of democracy.”