Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Frustrated by lackluster progress in improving their prospects in media organizations, European female journalists recently demanded that media owners strengthen gender equality in their profession.

"Media employers show a deplorable unwillingness to support equal treatment in the workplace, including equal pay and equal right of promotion to leadership positions," said Annegret Witt-Barthel, European coordinator of the International Federation of Journalists’ Gender Council, made up of regional coordinators on gender issues for the Brussels-based professional organization.

The group’s indictment of an industry dismissive of women’s concerns and its subsequent call for action came on May 30 at a conference on female journalists and the European integration in Nicosia, Cyprus.

Conference-goers–30 female journalists representing 22 unions and media associations from all over Europe–established a women’ journalists’ network. They agreed to organize a Europe-wide study of the status of female journalists and adopted guidelines for action to improve working conditions, including better representation in trade union leadership.

Sunny World Economic Forum Report

What intrigued me was how the deep distress of these accomplished women contrasted with a sunny report from the World Economic Forum two weeks earlier that shows European countries leading the world in closing the gender gap between women’s and men’s advancement.

The World Economic Forum measured the size of the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being in 58 countries. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland were the top five, with 10 European Union members in the top 15 positions. (The United States ranked 17th.) Clearly, much is going well for women in Europe.

How could it be, then, that the European media are lagging so badly in supporting and promoting their talented female journalists?

Surely it’s not lack of acumen or aggressiveness on the part of the women they employ. Consider the work of French war correspondent Florence Aubenas, a veteran journalist who reported from Kosovo, Rwanda and Afghanistan, recently released from captivity in Iraq. Or Italian journalist hostage Giuliana Sgrena, known for her chilling reports of the Iraq war’s effect on noncombatants, later shot in Iraq along with the Italian official who negotiated her release; she was wounded and he was killed in March when the U.S. forces attack on her vehicle as she was being driven to freedom.

Or legendary Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, murdered in 1996 after writing tough story after tough story about Dublin drug kingpins. Or the 100 female journalists and media staffers the International Federation of Journalists says have been killed over the past 15 years.

Unsung Bravery

Their bravery isn’t always admired, however. Media researcher Margaret Gallagher, a longtime observer of the status of women in European media, in a report for the United Nations, wrote: "When British journalist Yvonne Ridley entered Afghanistan illegally (with the consent of her newspaper) in September 2001 and was then arrested and held by the Taliban, the press released a barrage of criticism that revolved around the assumption that female journalists with children are first and foremost mothers. Their careers are of secondary importance. Press reports of the parallel case of French journalist Michel Peyrard, also caught entering Afghanistan illegally, never referred to his actions as irresponsible, although he, too, was a parent."

Surely the problem isn’t that female journalists are failing to contribute mightily to the output of their news organizations.

As in the United States, women make up slightly better than a third of European newsroom staffs and in some countries, such as Finland and Sweden, nearly half. However, their diligence, performance and loyalty aren’t carrying them to the top. In the last study available on executive clout in European news organizations, released in 2001, the International Federation of Journalists found that fewer than 3 percent of senior media executives and decision-makers were female.

Deceptive Appearances

Where women have become more visible in journalistic jobs–primarily as television news readers, what we in the United States call "anchors"–appearances can be deceiving, Gallagher says.

"Indeed, women’s increased presence on the screen almost certainly contributes to a gulf between perception and reality," she says. "In most European countries, women are a clear minority of working journalists in radio and television." Yet the multiplicity of female news readers gives the impression that there are as many women as men working in television news, perhaps even more women, when actually there are fewer, Gallagher says.

Surely the problem isn’t training or academic preparation. Women have been the majority of students in university mass communication programs in developed countries for a quarter of a century. Many in the news business have believed that as more women enter the profession, the numbers will improve. But after 25 years of more women being prepared for journalism than men and still not advancing in pay or promotion as men do, it seems ridiculous to cling to this notion.

These anomalies are hard to ignore. Anger about them bubbled over in May at Agence France Presse, where 232 female journalists, supported by 81 male colleagues, signed a petition protesting inferior salaries and scarcer opportunities for career advancement compared with those of the men with whom they worked.

"No woman has ever held one of the important decision-making positions: neither regional director abroad, nor editor in chief, nor director of news, nor CEO of the company," the group’s statement said. "Of 54 bureau chief positions filled since January 2002 by an editorial board composed exclusively of men, only two have gone to women."

The group is demanding compensation for past workplace inequities and promotions of women into positions of authority.

In all of this, no one has actually come out and charged anyone with anything. All the official wording has been judicious and circumspect.

But reading these documents between the lines–along with numbers showing they are not paid as well as men and don’t occupy positions of authority in anywhere near the same numbers–it doesn’t seem like a stretch to talk about gender-based discrimination.

What else could it be?

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.





For More Information:


European Journalists’ Call for Gender Equality in the Media:

Women journalists decry inequalities at AFP:

Margaret Gallagher’s U.N. report–Women, Media and Democratic Society:

International Federation of Journalists–Equality and Quality: Setting Standards for Women in Journalism [PDF]: