By ILINA GHOSH
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.
“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.”