Studies Show Women's Role in Media Shrinking

Studies show women journalists' role in America's newsrooms is shrinking, even though women predominate in undergraduate and graduate journalism programs, and have for decades.

Eleanor Clift

MIAMI (WOMENSENEWS)-As an intern working the business beat of a major daily newspaper in the Midwest, Gail DeGeorge got her first taste of just how male-dominated her chosen field was when her welcoming lunch was held at the newspaper's usual spot: the downtown Playboy Club.

That was 20 years ago, and DeGeorge and other female journalists have seen some change in male attitudes since then. DeGeorge, now business editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, characterized her lunch invitation as “oblivious, not malicious.”

“You wouldn't do that now, and I think things are better now than they were then,” DeGeorge said. “But business journalism is definitely a male bastion.”

Study after study into sex roles in the media continue to show that women have a long way to go before their voices are really heard, either as guiding forces from within the news organization or as credible sources from without.

The most recent newsroom census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that the percentage of women in newspaper newsrooms decreased slightly from 37.35 percent to 37 percent. While slight, the decrease comes at a time when women continue to represent the 60 percent or more of students in college journalism programs. Minority women at newspapers comprise only 2.99 percent of all women.

Women account for only 24 percent of television news directors and 20 percent of radio news directors, according to the 2001 Women and Minorities Survey conducted in the United States by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation. The study was discussed at an April conference of the Women's Funding Network, where about 100 women's foundations from around the world met to discuss solutions to global problems.

There's a shortage of women on the other side of that microphone as well. A study by the White House Project found that women accounted for only 11 percent of all guest appearances on Sunday talk shows in 2000 and 2001 and only 10 percent when guests included presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Once accepted on the talk show, women spoke 10 percent fewer words, and were much less likely to be called back as a repeat guest. In fact, women accounted for only 7 percent of repeat guests.

Sept. 11 Worsened Gender Imbalance

The situation significantly worsened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the study. From Sept. 11 to Oct. 28, guest appearances by American women dropped 39 percent. Add foreign officials to the mix, and the drop was 12 percent.

“The Sunday shows have the potential to allow women to be seen in intimate settings as trustworthy authority figures, debaters, leaders, communicators and experts. Conversely, they have the potential to maintain traditional gender roles and to perpetuate existing notions that women lack the credibility, expertise and authority to address our nation's most significant problems,” the report concludes. “It is our hope that the release of this report will inspire the networks to work toward remedying the inequitable representation of women guests on their shows.”

“When there are only one or two women on these shows. People think there aren't any women authorities out there,” said Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women and the White House Project. “People don't know their women leaders.”

Attempting to Join the Boys' Club

Anecdotal evidence abounds as well, and many stories like DeGeorge's were shared at a recent newswomen's workshop in Miami. The workshop, “Women Reaching for the Top: Initiatives for Media Leadership,” was organized by the International Women's Media Foundation. The series of leadership workshops is geared toward women journalists in mid-level positions.

The first in the series of workshops was held in New York in February. In addition to the Miami workshop in April, another program took place in Los Angeles and the next workshop is slated for June 27 in San Francisco.

Real-life experiences the women talked about at the workshops ranged from missing out on valuable networking opportunities because they weren't invited to men's poker nights, to studying basketball rankings in order to join in the comradery of the office sports betting pools.

“This is a profession that has to learn a lot about bringing more voices to the table and creating more opportunities,” said Eleanor Clift, a contributing editor for Newsweek and a founding board member of the media foundation.

Helping Women Crack the Glass Ceiling

Talking about the lack of a female presence in the media is one thing. Helping women crack that glass ceiling is something else entirely.

That's why the International Women's Media Foundation was formed in 1990, and why the organization has decided to tackle the white, male-dominated profession one woman leader at a time.

The workshops focus on building practical skills to work within the newsroom culture and change it. Risk-taking, conflict resolution, career mapping and communication skills were emphasized in a day-long training session.

One of the primary challenges women face in the news business is the demanding and often unpredictable schedule. A survey conducted with women in 44 countries in 2000 found that 64 percent said balancing work and family is their top obstacle.

“One of the things that we'd like to do during our tenure is to reach out to more up-and-coming journalists to help them find the paths they most desperately wanted to find in leadership,” said foundation co-chair Bailey Morris-Eck, and a senior associate at the Reuters Foundation, who spoke at the New York workshop.

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist covering state government in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

International Women's Media Foundation:

Also see Women's Enews, December 6, 2001:
“Women Denied Talk Show Rite of Political Passage”: