Research by Dr Catherine Strong from Massey University in New Zealand shows that although women and men are joining the junior ranks of newspaper journalism in almost equal numbers, few women make it to the top management roles. Her findings reveal a lot about the cultures that have got us to where we are today, and are now holding us back from better audience engagement.
Dr Strong suggests it’s not the glass ceiling but a protective glass “bubble” that leads women to choose not to go further in newspapers. Women actively reject male-dominated, aggressive and confrontational newsroom environments.
It’s not because we’re not clever enough, or ambitious enough, or because we lack news sense, or that we are unwilling to put in the hours to be successful – it’s because women, according to Dr Strong’s research, have different values.
When faced with a daily working environment that is inflexible, abrasive, inconsiderate, allows no work-life balance and at times verges on bullying, we decide, to quote Nancy Sinatra, that “these boots are made for walking”. Feminism in newspapers has revealed itself not as a determination to equal the boys in how we play the game, but as a strong sense of self-value that says “well, if that’s the way you’re going to play it, screw you. I’ll go elsewhere”.
The glass bubble is, according to Dr Strong, “the knowledge women have that they have the skills and abilities to be able to go off and get a better job in another industry where they are valued and where there is a better fit with their values.”
A lot of scary talk about values here. I can feel the blokes I know on news floors starting to shift awkwardly in their seats. So the boys are running the newsrooms – does it matter?
Yes, if we care about stemming the decline in circulations, attracting new audiences and improving our appeal to advertisers. We need to build newsrooms that understand what women value, and are staffed by fluent Venusian-speakers.
Cultures define values. What Dr Strong’s research shows is that a female perspective is largely absent in the voice of our newspapers, even as a female perspective in our newspapers becomes ever-more important as a circulation and revenue driver.
A newsroom culture that is abrasive and aggressive does not listen to out-of-the-box ideas on the basis they are not what has been done before, or that they threaten the hierarchy.
A newsroom culture that is male-dominated risks seeing women only as celebrity starlets or struggling mothers-of-toddlers from the outer suburbs. In other words, it risks alienating 50 percent of its audience. So what do women really want from our newspapers – as employees, managers and readers?
We want to be heard. We want the right to speak out without being shouted down. We want to be valued because we see the world through a different lens – not dismissed.
Men enjoy a working environment that is single-minded in its focus, and many are prepared to ignore any outside distraction – including family and health – to succeed.
Women, however, succeed when they know that outside distractions – children, housework, supermarket shopping, tonight’s dinner, bill paying, elderly family members, breast screens and parent-teacher interviews – are taken care of. (Not necessarily all by ourselves, you understand, but we like to have a system and we need 15 minutes in our day to stay on top of it. It may mean others need to wait five whole minutes for their news list. It explains, however, why we are great at multitasking).
At the extreme, neither of these environments is successful. The Martian newsroom is focused to the point of exclusion of the things that make us human. The Venusian newsroom can take on too much and achieve little. But gentlemen, there is a reason most news companies remain siloed, and persevere with a vertical structure despite all evidence from nearly every other industry sector that we need to become flatter, more networked organisations based on co-operation and co-ordination, rather than control and command.
Those who stick with the old ways need to get out of their comfort zone.
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, newsrooms need to follow the rest of Star Fleet and join the federation of colonies on the planets in between.
Kylie Davis is a senior editor at News Limited, based in Sydney.
Follow her on Twitter @kyliecdavis