By Catherine Fox
Some headline-grabbing incidents recently, of poor behaviour towards women by senior men in the media, have not come as a shock to many employees in the sector.
While some have suggested the reaction to these transgressions showed a step forward, others were less optimistic that change is happening for female employees.
I’ve been a journalist and advocate for better gender equity for a long time – including many years while writing the ‘Corporate Woman’ column in the Financial Review – and although there has been progress on some fronts, there’s still a lot more basic work to be done.
And that includes in the media.
The results of WiM’s member survey, released a few months ago, revealed a pretty bleak picture.
According to the Women in Media Industry Insight Report 2022, more than half (56%) of respondents rank the sector’s commitment to gender equality as weak or very weak, and were dissatisfied or unsure about how to advance their media career; some 84% called for gender pay gap audits to improve outcomes.
In a series of interviews I did when the results were launched there was some surprise at the findings, given coverage of gender bias and bullying features regularly in the news cycle.
Rarely a week goes by without another media report about problems faced by women, or the efforts to level an uneven playing field.
The standard has improved enormously in the past few years, as recent events marking the 10 years since Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech reminded us.
The blatant sexism facing our first woman PM was poorly handled, or even ignored, by many in the media at the time. And Gillard herself believes coverage would be different today.
But the WiM survey results indicate the media still has a long way to go in practising what it preaches and addressing discrimination within its own ranks.
Perhaps there has been an assumption that because the sector now does a much better job of covering these issues it will, by default, have addressed them internally.
The bad news is, that’s generally not the case.
The good news is, these are all problems that can be quickly addressed.
Women in Media Industry Insight
Women in Media Industry Insight
It’s about intervening to ensure sexism is tackled and the rules don’t work against marginalised groups, whether it’s women, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, people with disabilities or LGBTQI+ groups.
As we head into 2023, here are some specific priorities for media employers that help put a theory to tackle gender bias into action.
Doctor heal thyself: many news gathering media organisations need to not only report on gender equality, but to start taking it seriously.
That includes senior executive acknowledgement of, and commitment to, closing the gender gap.
This is not a ‘cost’, or an HR project designed to tick a box, but critical to recruitment and retention when talent is expensive and scarce.
In fact, as a number of commentators have pointed out, ignoring or expecting gender inequity to ‘heal itself’ is a serious risk for boards and senior executives.
Let’s see some sector leadership here.
For a bunch of professional communicators, who regularly critique poor management and communications efforts for a living, this should not be a big ask.
Clear regular discussion on the steps ahead, from senior editors and executives in individual organisations, is the baseline.
The talk must be matched by action for diverse media employees (who tend to have highly honed corporate claptrap detection skills).
Consulting, planning and publishing strategic plans, with clear aims and measurement, (see below) is fundamental.
With so many women respondents ranking the sector as ‘poor’ on gender issues, there seems a major opportunity here for industry networks, unions and other media-wide bodies to step up together to fly the flag.
It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel; this should be well within the wheelhouse for these employers.
No more excuses, defensiveness and time-wasting – practical change is needed.
Data and targets: measure often and measure right.
Experts point out that simply using broad totals of women employed in an area overlooks or disguises the qualitative factors that add up to inequity.
Media employers have no shortage of women in their ranks but it’s where they are employed, their status and progression compared to male peers, and their pay levels, which need tracking.
Data can pinpoint where particular attention is needed.
If there’s evidence of a motherhood penalty derailing women returning to the workplace, then more programs to help with reattaching (such as the Relaunch Project run by WiM) need to be offered, supported, and results measured.
Likewise, targets have been used in many parts of the business and public sectors with positive outcomes.
Setting goals seems like a no-brainer but it still meets resistance from many who claim the backlash outweighs the advantages.
Nevertheless, results from a number of studies show organisations with targets in place make more progress than those without these mechanisms.
Tackle the gender pay gap: the tools for this range from the disinfecting sunshine of transparency about pay scales, right through to formal and regular audits.
The tools for monitoring are freely available (including through WGEA) and a growing number of companies are reporting on how they have closed the gender pay gap (including drinks company Lion and Energy Australia).
The media has a lot to gain from getting more organised around this and much to lose from inaction.
A few years ago there was an outcry in the UK when the BBC published pay data and it was clear that some senior women were underpaid by about 50% compared to their male peers.
This included China Editor Carrie Gracie who resigned shortly after the revelations.
In the wash-up from the scandal, the network BBC Women found a number of strategies helped.
These included never going to meetings about gender pay by yourself, taking notes of any pay gap discussion and then sending it to your manager, and encouraging transparency by sharing tactics and details of pay bands or other scales.
The gender pay gap is well researched, as is the process for addressing the problem.
And these steps help with identifying and eliminating gender bias more broadly.
Show us the career paths: The message about poor information on career progression and upskilling came through loud and clear in the survey.
This has long been a sector, which enjoys high levels of supply and has traditionally avoided the kinds of formal structures that many other workplaces take for granted.
And in a way this default worked by avoiding the dead hand of bureaucracy and relying on patronage and talent spotting.
Some of that has changed of course, but there’s still a legacy of poor practices and biases that make it harder for women to flourish.
The idea still exists that you’ll get ahead if you’re talented enough; this creates a breeding ground for bias in recognising skills and making promotions.
Setting out clearer progression requirements for all employees at least helps even up the chances to move ahead by making fairer and comparable assessments of progress and achievements.
With so many new demands on media employees, the respondents also earmarked the need for information about, and access to, upskilling.
Managers and editors have a crucial role here but of course there’s no point adding another few bullet points to their responsibilities if they are not given support, training and measurement goals to ensure better outcomes.
And again, there are tools available.
The need here is not innovation but intention.
Let’s hope the year ahead builds on the WiM findings and leverages the strategic policy work by government, the recognition of the care economy and the need for safer workplaces to deliver much better outcomes in the sector.
As media reports have pointed out for the past few years, the drum beat for change is growing louder.
Over the next year, there’s plenty of activity planned at the policy level, with a taskforce and planning underway for a National Gender Equality Strategy.
Boosts to childcare are also in the pipeline, and the Respect at Work legislation has been enacted to increase proactive steps around preventing bullying and harassment in workplaces.
On the gender pay gap front, following a review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act, the Federal Government has made a commitment that organisational gender pay gaps will be published by many employers, instead of only industry levels, in the near future.
Now is the time for the media to move out in front on reflecting that change not only in its output, but in its female-dominated ranks.