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Staff Reporter

The large number of young women entering journalism today are well positioned to challenge sexism in the newsroom, veteran journalist and author Vivian Smith told about 100 aspiring reporters earlier this month.

“Just your sheer numbers mean that you’re going to have more influence in newsrooms,” said Smith, who spoke at the Ryerson University School of Journalism about her recent book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers.

Veteran journalist and author Vivian Smith spoke at the Ryerson University School of Journalism about her recent book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers earlier this month. [Ilina Ghosh]

Veteran journalist and author Vivian Smith spoke at the Ryerson University School of Journalism earlier this month about her recent book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers. [Ilina Ghosh]

“When I was doing this, [I was] one woman [at a table with] seven or eight men and it was all very interesting to them, but not that important. So keeping up the conversation with your numbers, with your mass, is really important and I hope that you do that.”

Smith got her first job in the women’s department of the St. Catharines Standard when women were just getting started in mainstream journalism.

“We were in a little tiny room that was behind the bathroom and we had the exciting task of writing up weddings and recipes and trying to bully our feminist features into the women’s pages.”

By 1980, she was at The Globe and Mail, where she would spend 14 years as a reporter, editor, columnist and manager – and have two children.

Smith says it was an era when women journalists were “sidelined, ignored and scrutinized” at the Globe and other newspapers. Efforts by women at the Globe to lobby for child care services remains one of her “favourite failed adventures,” she said.

“Of course we were all pregnant, so management basically waited us out and never put out a daycare survey to see what kind of daycare people might be interested in… I think the union did finally put out a version of this survey and nothing came of it because all the people that were pregnant at the time went off and had their babies and disappeared. Problem solved.”

According to Smith’s research, women have dominated Canadian journalism schools in numbers for the last three decades. However, women still make up only a third of editorial staff and a quarter of managerial positions at newspapers.

“The higher up the ranks you go; the fewer women you see. When you get to the top 25 papers in Canada by circulation there are only, at my last check, four women as publishers or editors-in-chief,” she said.

Outsiders Still is a collection of conversations with 27 women journalists from five different Canadian newspapers. The youngest was in her mid-20s while the oldest was 61. Smith said she was able to identify distinct generational differences among her subjects

Smith calls senior participants, those 45 or older, “lucky survivors,” because they repeatedly attribute their success to luck.  

“All the time they kept informing me that they were just so lucky they got that internship way back when, they were lucky that that guy gave them a job, they were just lucky that they were in the right place and the right time, and they were just lucky that their husbands could take care of the kids,” Smith says.

She refers to women in the middle of their careers as “self sacrificing hard workers [who are] still pretty insecure about their jobs.”

These women, Smith says, are rising in the ranks, yet cannot fully accept that they deserve the positions they have earned. She quoted Hamilton Spectator city editor Carla Ammerata in the book: “We think, as women, that ‘I’m not smart enough to be in that position. I don’t have enough experience, what are they doing promoting me?’” Ammerata told Smith. “We are all our own worst enemies in some ways.”

In Outsiders Still, the youngest group of female journalists are characterized as “individual strategists” who are far more concerned with keeping their jobs than sexism. These younger women, Smith says,  believe that gender inequality is something they can “handle.”

Smith’s research also shows that women who are journalists see themselves as much more than simply purveyors of news.

“The main joy, the main satisfaction these women got from their work as journalists, whether they were a columnist or a managing editor or a reporter, was they were voices for the voiceless. The role of being a social advocate was really important to them, rather than ‘just reporting the news,’” Smith said during her presentation.

Smith began her research for Outsiders Still in 2008 as part of her doctoral thesis and spent four years collecting information, all the while worrying that the issue might be resolved before she finished her research.

“I was always worried because I thought well, what if I’m too late and gender inequality in the newsroom is solved by the time I get this done?

“I really don’t know what I was thinking at all,” she said, laughing. “Gender inequality is even more persistent than I am.”

Smith said the turmoil in the news business is also taking a greater toll on women than men. Studies show, she said, that women journalists more than men are feeling the stress of their jobs and are either considering leaving or actually are leaving the profession in greater numbers than their male counterparts.

“A lot of women were telling me [at journalism gatherings] that they were going to quit newspapers or they had done so already, feeling frustrated and burnt out… Being female seemed to define their careers in a certain way and all of these women’s voices were missing from the national conversation. And the papers where they worked continued to reflect a fairly narrow view of society.”

She says women journalists juggled motherhood and their careers as best they could, “while at the same time, trying to push the paper toward issues of importance to women and to more people and [pointing] out sexism in news coverage whenever we saw it.”

In the end, however, Smith says it just wasn’t tenable for many women “to remain at the extreme end of the macho culture in newsrooms.”

Sexism in today’s Canadian newsrooms, she says, continues to be widespread and has simply taken on a new form.

“An overt hostility towards a few women has been replaced by a systemically reproduced inequality that ends the careers of many women who manage to enter the field and that limits the progress of those few who stay and seek to make change through their work.”

As one of the senior journalists in Smith’s book put it: “Journalism, like many other professions, is easy if you have a wife at home.”


Staff Reporter

Recently freed Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy thanked his supporters Tuesday, while criticizing the Harper government’s lack of effort and diplomatic bungles during his detainment in Egypt.

“While you here, citizens in Canada and around the world, clearly understood the urgency of the situation we faced in prison in Egypt, the Harper government did not,” Fahmy said at a press conference at the Ryerson University School of Journalism organized by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Recently freed journalist Mohamed Fahmy addresses a news conference hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.

Recently freed journalist Mohamed Fahmy addresses a news conference hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism on Oct. 13. [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy, 41, was working for Al Jazeera when he was arrested in Egypt in 2013 and put on trial for airing what Egyptian courts branded “false news” and coverage biased towards the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year after a court process that was widely denounced by critics.

Fahmy said he initially felt disbelief  when he was told Prime Minister Stephen Harper was doing little to pressure the Egyptian government for his release.

“In my cell, I refused to recognize at the beginning that Mr. Harper was not putting his full clout behind me, I just couldn’t accept that. Then I realized there was a chorus from the international community of journalists and politicians, even Egyptian officials telling us that ‘Mr. Harper was not there for you.’

“Sitting in that prison cell, it was difficult not to feel betrayed and abandoned by Prime Minister Harper,” he said.

“Today, I want to start a conversation in Canada about how we as Canadians want our government to act when one of our citizens is wrongfully detained in a foreign jurisdiction,” he told reporters.

He said he would like to talk to the winner of the Oct. 19 federal election about how such situations should be handled in the future.

There needs to be communication between leaders, “from the highest levels of government, immediately when the arrest happens because that is the best time for intervention. If there is any chance of being deported or extracted, it is between the time you are arrested and when the case goes to court,” Fahmy said.  

“It can happen tomorrow to any innocent Canadian,” he said, adding that citizens in trouble abroad need a government “that supports us 100 per cent.”

Fahmy says he wants to start "a conversation in Canada" about how to better protect citizens in trouble abroad. [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy says he wants to start “a conversation in Canada” about how to better protect citizens in trouble abroad, calling the Harper government’s approach to his case “very mild.” [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy said the Harper government’s “very mild” efforts on his behalf prolonged his ordeal.

“Our prime minister delegated his responsibility to people who lacked the clout to really get me out of there,” he said.

“The junior ministers and ambassadors on the ground were diligent and well-intentioned and they visited me and made sure that I was doing well and they provided advice, but they didn’t have the authority to plead directly with President el-Sisi and that was what I needed, more than anything.”

He compared Canadian efforts to Australia’s successful campaign to free his Al Jazeera colleague, Australian citizen Peter Greste, who was released this February, while Fahmy was released in September.

“I do understand that Canada escalated their approach after the constructive critique we launched after my colleague was deported and I was left behind.”

Australia’s response, however, was strong from beginning, Fahmy said: “The Australian prime minister, as far as I understand, called President el-Sisi right from the get go several times calling for Peter’s release and then called to thank [el-Sisi] after he was released.

“This case should be a lesson about intervention from the highest levels immediately,” he said.

Fahmy was also critical of then-foreign affairs minister John Baird, insisting that Baird jeopardized his release when he said Canada would not prosecute Fahmy if Egypt let him go.

In an interview with media critic Jesse Brown earlier this month, Fahmy said that “all the journalists who attended the press conference where Mr. Baird announced that were shocked that he said it. That immediately kills what the Egyptians were trying to do, which is get rid of me in a face-saving manner.”

During the press conference, Fahmy repeatedly acknowledged the efforts of those who fought for his release.

“I am here because of you guys, thank you so much. Me and my wife and my family, we are very grateful to everyone in Canada who fought for this stranger,” Fahmy said.

“In that solitary confinement for one month, with no access to sunlight or even a way to tell time, I still somehow got news that there were rallies outside and people fighting for us and it did make a difference, it raised my morale and I probably survived because of your support outside.”

Fahmy thanked human rights organizations and the press, along with citizens who supported grassroots campaigns for his release.

“I’m very happy that every single person tweeted and signed the petition and all the organizations that asked Prime Minister Harper to intervene and put all his clout behind me,” he said.

“If you ever doubt that these campaigns make a difference – I am living proof that they do.”

Fahmy said he intends to vote on Oct. 19, but as a journalist “cannot endorse anyone.” His meetings on press freedom with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau on Monday and NDP leader Tom Mulcair later on Tuesday should not be interpreted as support, he insisted after the meeting.

However, during the press conference, he expressed repeated gratitude for the two leaders’ help during his ordeal, the support they provided to his family and the push they gave the prime minister for stronger intervention in his case.

“There are no words to describe how it feels when you are wrongly convicted, sitting in a cold cell, festering with insects, nursing a broken shoulder. But when you’re there, your only hope is that your prime minister will do everything in his power to get you out of there.”

The Conservative government, he noted, “refused” to talk to him, his international lawyer Amal Clooney or his lawyers in Canada.

While he did not endorse a specific party, he added: “You do know who I am not voting for. That’s for sure.”

Fahmy said he will also continue with his lawsuit against Al Jazeera, for the part he believes it played in his conviction and imprisonment.

“There can be no doubt that Al Jazeera endangered me and my team,” he said, by not arranging proper broadcast licences, commencing a lawsuit against Egypt a month before the verdict in his criminal trial knowing it would be “devastating” to his case, and against the warnings of Al Jazeera staff,  dubbing Fahmy’s English news reports into Arabic and rebroadcasting them on an illegal Arabic network labelled as a “national security threat” by Egyptian courts.

“No news network should be permitted to compromise journalistic ethics or the safety of its journalists. When a network betrays journalists and journalism in this way, as Al Jazeera did, we journalists and citizens who believe in the importance of the free press must hold them accountable,” he said.

Now back at home, Fahmy has accepted a teaching position at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism and plans to write a book about his experiences.

He will also continue his work with the Fahmy Foundation, an organization he founded with his wife, Marwa Omara, that advocates for wrongly imprisoned journalists and the protection of free speech.