Michele Weldon

(WOMENSENEWS)–Ambition defies the boundaries of gender. Opportunity is less democratic.

For women working in daily newspapers across the country, the crawl toward the goal post of equity continues.

The numbers of women on the staffs of daily newspapers in 2003 increased minutely to 37.23 percent of newsroom employees, according to theannual ASNE Newsroom Employment Census releasedTuesday by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The meager improvement from 37.05 percent after a two-year decline in numbers of women in newsrooms forces us to decode the writing on the wall and choose the appropriate cliche: Is it “slow and steady wins the race?” Or “quit while you still can?”

Cassandra West, editor of WomanNews, a Wednesday section at the Chicago Tribune, said the study shows the profession is a long way from fair representation of 51 percent women in newsrooms.

“I’m not hopeful that we’ll ever have those kinds of numbers, but the need to have more women analyzing, reporting and shaping news coverage is as important as the need to have more women in government, medicine, law and all other professions,” West said.

Guys Still Corner Upper Management

According to the latest ASNE survey of 927 U.S. daily newspapers, men continue to dominate corner offices of upper management. Only 34.2 percent of supervisors are women, the study showed. With 65.8 percent male supervisors, men outnumber women supervisors almost 2 to 1. How can that not affect decisions made about what stories to cover and how?

The position of copy/layout editor is more gender-balanced with 41.4 percent of those jobs held by women, a minuscule gain from 41 percent female copy editors the year before. Twenty-two percent of women working in newsrooms are on the copy desk, which has been true for the past three years. Eighteen percent of men working in newsrooms are on the copy desk, unchanged for the past five years.

Though more women work as reporters than at any other position (with 49 percent of female newsroom employees working as reporters), there are still fewer female than male reporters. Only 39.6 percent of reporters are women, a blip of an increase from 39.5 percent female reporters in newsrooms, according to the report on 2003.

Photo Departments Least Accommodating

The photo department appears to be the least accommodating to women. Photos appearing in newspapers are almost three times more likely to be shot by a male photographer. Only 26.1 percent of the photographers in newsrooms in 2003 were women, another marginal increase from 25.9 percent the previous year. Only 7 percent of women working in newspapers are employed as photographers.

Considering this paucity, it is particularly sweet that two female photographers won Pulitzer Prizes this year; Cheryl Diaz Meyer at The Dallas Morning News for breaking news photography and Carolyn Cole at the Los Angeles Times for feature photography.

The annual ASNE newsroom census, established in 1978, has marked the climb in minority employment of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans over the past 25 years. The census only began to include the breakdown of women working in newsrooms in 1999. In the industry’s admirable and necessary aim to achieve diversity, the inclusion of women is seen as an afterthought, 21 years late.

“Women have a world view, a personal view and what I believe is a much-needed human view of how we live and how everything is connected. So having as many women at the table in all areas of journalism is essential,” West said.

But for women in journalism, however, something goes awry between studying for journalism and working in it. Women represent more than 70 percent of students in journalism schools or at universities with journalism or communication programs. In the newsroom, however, that percentage has been cut in half.

A Broken System

“There’s something broken with the system if almost two-thirds of the people who are studying journalism are female and less than half of the journalists working in newsrooms are women” said David Nelson, associate professor and chair of the newspaper department at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

I grew up with the fictional role models of newspaper reporters Brenda Starr and Lois Lane. But when I noticed that most bylines belonged to men, I saw journalism as male-dominated. Even the designation of “soft” and “hard” news appeared to divide coverage into female and male camps.

Beyond this most recent report, several studies have pointed to the woeful representation of women in newsrooms in positions from entry level to management. A 2002 survey conducted for the American Press Institute and The Pew Center For Civic Journalism showed that 64 percent of all women said they saw their opportunities for advancement blocked by sexism. It also found that only 31 percent of the women surveyed said they will likely be promoted to the next logical position of their newspaper, compared to 42 percent of the men.

Does this imbalance of gender affect what shows up in the newspaper and who gets quoted on what kinds of stories? We can only draw that conclusion. The Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center showed that in 3,500 front-page stories, male sources outnumbered female sources 3 to 1. Women are more likely to be quoted on stories about health, home, food, fashion, travel and education. Men, however, are most likely to be quoted on stories about politics, business, religion and science.

The goal is not be to add more women to the cubicles because it is fair.

Today we can look to major newspapers across the country and see strong, talented women at the helm: Ann Marie Lipinski at the Chicago Tribune; Sandra Mims Rowe at The Oregonian, Julia Wallace at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deborah Howell at Newhouse News Service, Amanda Bennett at the Philadelphia Enquirer, to name some. In hundreds of newspapers, we see female bylines from datelines across the globe in all sections of the paper.

Their courageous and hard-earned ascent is not just politically correct, it is critical to achieve balanced, fair and inclusive coverage of a complex, changing society. As reporters, photographers, layout designers, editors and managers of news outlets, women add a different tempo to the chorus of voices, a different vision. It took Gail Collins to bring mammograms to the editorial page of The New York Times.

Women have needs for information on issues from public policy to private healthcare that differ from those of male readers. To respond, we need to race toward parity in employing and promoting women at our country’s newspapers so ambition can meet opportunity half way.

Michele Weldon is an assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is second vice president of Journalism and Women Symposium. She is the author of the memoir, “I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman,” and “Writing to Save Your Life: How to Honor Your Story Through Journaling,” both from Hazelden Publishing.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–“Biased Newsrooms Risk Losing Female Staff, Readers”:

Journalism and Women Symposium:

International Women’s Media Foundation: