Words by Catherine Fox
When you present the nightly news for a major television network, it’s assumed you have a platform for getting your voice heard. But that’s not always been the case for Network Ten’s Sandra Sully.
“Outside of media, people presume I will be heard. But when I began my board career in sport (as a director of Hockey Australia) I was a newbie,” she says. “What I learnt was I really did have to make sure I was prepared; that I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and seek guidance.”
“I’ve learnt a lot about using my voice, standing up - and lately that’s about highlighting the employment opportunities for older workers.”
Experience has taught Sully, who will appear at Women in Media’s National Conference in September, that using her voice to push for an issue, such as more age diversity in recruitment, has to be aimed at the top.
At the same time she is a big believer in putting the ladder down as you move up so that, wherever you traverse, you leave it in a better place for those behind you – not just for women but for different ethnicities and age groups.
Career decisions and opportunities can make a big difference to how your skills and authority develop, she adds.
“I always wanted the late news - I relished the opportunity of owning the space myself and finding my way and finding my voice. It was a less glamorous job at the time when I took it.”
No matter what stage of their career, most women are keen to be at the table and have a chance to contribute, either in media workplaces or as potential sources or experts, says former journalist and Curtin University Associate Professor Kathryn Shine.
Research released last month - “Going on the record: gendered experiences of media engagement” by Shine and colleagues from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership - found women were just as willing as men were to be interviewed by the media.
It’s important to myth bust the idea women are reluctant, particularly following Women in Media’s Gender Scorecard research which found that about 70% of experts and sources quoted in the Australian media were men.
“I get frustrated when I hear people say that women don’t want to talk to the media, or are much more difficult, because that’s not my experience, and certainly not what we are getting from the research either,” Shine says.
But change is very doable, she adds, and the core business of being a journalist is speaking to a broad range of people.
Increasing women as sources and experts shouldn’t be the responsibility of women. “We don’t want to say this is a responsibility of women to fix the problem but I think it’s having the conversations with your bosses or more senior journalists,” she says. “It’s about saying ‘have you considered speaking to this woman rather than this man we always go to?’.
“Those suggestions aren’t always taken up but, in my experience, people can be quite receptive to ideas about new or different sources by putting up ideas and encouraging your colleagues and bosses to think a little bit more laterally.”
Women in the sector may feel uncomfortable putting their own story up because they’re used to telling others’ stories, says Karen Eck, communications strategist and founder of The Power of Visibility.
Her message to women is to think about sharing the expertise you have and the influence you can create by putting yourself out there.
In her workshops Eck asks women to think about what a greater profile would do for them professionally, and the barriers holding them back.
The common reasons women believe they are unable to speak up are linked to confidence, personality, lack of know-how, and feeling overwhelmed she says.
These are hardly surprising concerns, given the well-documented penalties and higher standards women face when they take a step into the limelight.
Women were well aware of this dynamic, according to Shine’s research. They were more likely to face social media backlash, and were often particularly concerned not to be seen as ‘’speaking out of turn”. But practice and experience makes a difference.
“Nothing beats doing interviews for building confidence,” Shine says. “We did find a correlation in the research: the more interviews you do the more likely you are to say ‘yes’ to an interview and putting yourself out there.”
Profile building is not only about column inches, being quoted, or putting up posts on social media. It’s having the chance to put your view across, Eck says. While there are key skills that can be learned, she’s also keen to get the message across that leaders in organisations needs to put visibility, and having a voice, on the agenda.
“It’s about employers identifying talent, and training and development is critical,” Eck adds.
The challenge to be heard is even greater for women from culturally diverse backgrounds. Shine says there is more diversity among journalism students at Curtin in recent years because they are seeing a few more people who look like them in the media. But there’s more work to do.
“The students absolutely do notice the lack of diversity and come back from work experience and say ‘I was the only Asian person there’.”
That said, there’s more pressure for diversity in newsrooms and sources than ever before and progress has certainly been made, as Sully notes.
“I work for a network that has women in every lead anchor role in every capital city – it was unheard of when I started and that is significant. They have quietly gone about being strong about diversity and I’m proud about that.”
Women in Media editorial consultant Catherine Fox is an award-winning journalist, author and leading commentator on women and the workforce. A former writer and columnist at the Financial Review, she is now freelance, has written or co-authored five books and
regularly speaks at events, particularly during IWD season. Catherine will be working with Women in Media in 2023 to develop content for members, supported by the Meta News Fund.