More women journos does not mean more gender awareness

IN Media Practice | 07/03/2010
Young Indian women are taking to journalism in droves, these numbers do not necessarily translate into gender awareness.
RANJIT DEVRAJ interviews AMMU JOSEPH, Indian journalist, author and media watcher. IPS features.

Q: There is talk of ‘feminisation’ of the Indian media. How would you qualify this in terms of location, class backgrounds, language?


A: Talk of the feminisation of the media has been around globally for nearly two decades. Back in 1995 Margaret Gallagher, who conducted the first extensive international survey on gender patterns in media employment, had pointed out that the term was a bit of a red herring. As she said at the time, "Even if the lower ranks of media organisations accommodate a growing number of women, there is no evidence that the upper echelons of the media have become ‘feminised’."  

The situation has certainly improved across the world • and in India • since then. However, we need to be clear what we mean by feminisation. Do the evidently larger numbers of women in the media today amount to feminisation? Or does the term imply a process of becoming more "feminine" or of taking on a "feminine" quality, as some definitions have it?

If it’s just a question of numbers, one can certainly say that there is some evidence of such a phenomenon in India, especially in big cities and in sections of the English-language media. However, if the term is meant to indicate more gender awareness in the media space, including but not only in terms of employment patterns, there is less evidence of such a transformation.

Q: How does the situation of women journalists compare with that of counterparts in other developing/developed countries?

A: I always recall the story of the six visually impaired persons trying to describe an elephant when I’m asked to talk in general about women working in the Indian media.

The experiences of women journalists vary according to a number of factors, including their location, the language they work in, the medium (print, broadcast, online), the size of the media house and the type of management policies and practices it follows, and even the generation the women belong to and their own socio-economic, cultural and familial background. There may be more in common between the situations of some Indian women journalists based in Delhi or Mumbai and their counterparts in London or New York than some of their female colleagues in say, Bhopal, Imphal, Kota, Madurai, Nasik or Ranchi.

Q: What are the changes that you note since your 2005 book ‘Making News: Women in Journalism’?

A: There is little doubt that there are now far more women in the Indian news media, especially but not only in metropolitan cities. They are particularly visible on television, but female bylines are also very common and prominent in the print media. More media women can be seen at all kinds of press conferences, on the campaign trail during elections, in places struck by disaster or conflict, on the sports field, in corporate offices and stock exchanges.

In many ways it would seem that women have arrived, are doing well and are likely to stay and succeed in the news media. That’s the good news.

At the same time it is a fact that we really know little about the terms of employment and conditions of work in the media today • for both men and women. We know even less about the situation of women across the broad spectrum of the news media • metro-based and otherwise, in English and other Indian languages, in the state and private sectors, in print and electronic media.

It is increasingly difficult to get information about human resources management policies and practices directly from media houses in this part of the world. A survey conducted in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for a global report on women in news media to be brought out later this year by the U.S.-based International Women's Media Foundation revealed that many managements (even among those who pride themselves on being corporate entities) either do not have gender-disaggregated data or are reluctant to share it.

And, of course, most of them are unwilling to provide even the salary ranges that prevail at different levels of the journalistic ladder.

Q: Will the feminisation of media have a wider impact in the status of women in society? If so, how?

A: Journalism sets the context for national debates on important current events and affects public perception of issues across the socio-economic and political continuum • not just what are widely seen as "women’s issues." By determining who has a voice in these debates and who is silenced, which issues are discussed and how they’re framed, media have the power to maintain the status quo or challenge the dominant order.

Unfortunately, mainstream media content still, by and large, reflect a masculine (and upper class, upper caste, urban) view of the world and of what is important. As a result, many issues that are particularly crucial to women’s lives feature are low down in the scale of what is regarded as newsworthy.

It is surely not unfair to propose that the media - in their vital role as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog of society, defenders of the public interest - must attempt to reflect the experiences, concerns, opinions and aspirations of diverse sections of the population, including the female half of the human race? That, to me, would signify feminisation.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of women in media?

A: I looked through my interviews with women journalists while writing my book, and found that many of them (including some who disapproved of any classification of professionals by sex) and some of the editors I had spoken to assigned certain characteristics to women in the profession: "conscientious, sincere, committed, earnest, responsible, dependable, hardworking, efficient, thorough, meticulous, fastidious" and so on.

I suppose some of these traits could come in handy while editing • which may be one of the reasons why some organisations prefer women to do copyediting, although there could be several other reasons.

I’m convinced that the way to move forward toward better media coverage of women’s or gender issues is to encourage journalists of both sexes to develop a gender perspective and apply it in all their work, irrespective of beat or other types of work assignments.

Q: Women have been particularly successful in the electronic media. How do you explain this?

A: This is a long-established global phenomenon. Women’s visibility in television news, for example, has been recognised worldwide as a fairly complex phenomenon which involves a number of factors, not all of them related to professional values. That said, I think it is great that so many women have established themselves as important figures in the Indian broadcast media, both public and private.

What I find even more exciting is women’s active and often successful participation in community media. Regular interactions with rural women using media in different ways to benefit their communities and themselves have taught me that we "media professionals" have a lot to learn from them.



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