Female journalists face lots of hurdles in their work. They not only have to contend with male-dominated newsrooms – from top to bottom- but the harsh vagaries that is newsgathering environment as Judie Kaberia narrates.
A few years ago, while working as a parliamentary reporter for one of Kenya’s radio stations, my then editor asked me to track down a very powerful politician for an interview on an important policy decision that the government had taken. I left messages on his mobile phone, visited his office, and even waylaid him at Parliament buildings in Nairobi. Every time, he brushed me off. He was ‘terribly’ busy, he told me but I did not relent.
I called him one morning and I was shocked when he answered the call. It had been a month of chase game. He finally agreed to grant the interview at 5pm at Parliament buildings. Great! At 4pm, he called to inform me that he had changed the location to one of the city hotels. The office driver took me to the meeting venue. I waited for an hour at the hotel lobby, but the news source was nowhere to be seen. I called him up.
“I am on the way. Just give me a few minutes,” he said.
Never mind he sauntered at 8pm, three hours past the appointment time, quite drunk and loud.
“If you want the interview,” he told me. “You have to follow me to my room. I am tired.”
“It will just take a few minutes,” I pleaded. He kept walking towards the stairs that led to the elevators. He paused at the base of the staircase, as I bargained to have the interview in the lobby, in public. The man had a randy reputation.
“You’ll have to come with me,” he said, and pulled my hand. I held onto the silver handrail with one hand and told him firmly to let go. When he saw that I was not budging, he signaled his bodyguards. I pulled my other hand away and grabbed the baluster for extra grip. They tried to yank my grip from the handrail, and only managed to crush the bangles on my hand. I was shouting at them. Yelling. My colleague, the company driver, saw what was happening and came to my rescue. I was shaking and crying. The bangles were all bloody. The shameless man kept on hurling unprintable as he went up the staircase. The bodyguards melted into the lobby. The few guests at the lobby wide-eyed at the scuffle, just looked on and continued with their business.
The following morning, he called my boss and said, I had disrespected him. That I had abused him. That I was rude. I was summoned. I explained the horrific situation. My boss’s jaw dropped. He called the powerful politician and gave him a tongue-lashing. I went back to work – traumatized. That was long before #MeToo.
I use this experience to illustrate just one of the major struggles that women in the media face while on the job. I could go on and on about female interns and male media managers, or my female colleagues who were fired just because they got pregnant while unmarried; or because, they got pregnant; or because they were nursing mothers. Granted, there are weighty systemic issues that need to be addressed.
First, there are very few women in editorial leadership, or those who cover male-dominated fields such as politics and crime. The few who survive to tell stories in these areas have to withstand overt or covert misogyny not just from their bosses, but also from the male news sources.
These struggles could have been synonymous with the past decade but even lately nothing much has changed so much so that when one female journalist was appointed to a top government job, a daily newspaper of national circulation called her “TV girl” in a front page headline. If it were a man, I asked myself, what would the headline have read? This goes on to show how women in the newsroom are painted.
This gender insensitivity in the portrayal of women in media content may never have arisen had there been genuine discussion about the headline in a newsroom with women at the decision-making table. Most top media managers are male – at least 65% in Kenya according to a study released in 2020. Women are only 35%. This is not unique to Kenya. Other countries also have lower numbers, i.e. the UK (30%) then South Africa (25%), followed by the US 23% and India (14%).
While media houses claim they have women in the newsroom and some in editorial leadership, it takes extra guts for the women who have made it to the top to stand up against decades of institutionalized patriarchy in news production. The few who are there and continue to do this important work deserve all the support they can get.
Secondly, the response to issues raised about the barriers and threats female journalists grapple with within and outside the media house is wanting. There has been a lot of talk, but little action.
Yes, we could have the best gender policies in place, have human resources departments handling complaints of inappropriate conduct and even established committees within the newsrooms to respond to issues affecting women in media, but why are so many female journalists exiting the newsroom at the prime of their careers? Why do they have to choose between being journalists on one hand, and starting and raising their families, on the other?
Perhaps our response has been ineffective or is not commensurate to the magnitude of the hurdles they face in their work. Without solid, practical and effective gender responsive initiatives, women – the disadvantaged gender –continue to suffer in silence leading to low performance and with time, they bow out of the media or become completely incompetent. With low performance, then it means women will not qualify to be appointed to the decision-making table.
Having gender responsive initiatives at the workplace ensures that women are supported to navigate the newsroom in complete acknowledgment that they have rights to marry, to become pregnant, to give birth, to breastfeed, etc. Basically, we should not pretend to be gender neutral, and ignore the natural and physiological demands of the female journalists. Yes, male and female are all journalists; they’re all qualified and able, but there’s nature. We should not discredit their worth, their professionalism just because of the natural changes in their lives. We can say we have maternity policies in place, but are they responsive to the needs of pregnant and nursing journalists to ensure they are not denied a chance to progress in their career towards occupying positions of power? Unfortunately, it is at this point in life many women bow out of the newsroom or start performing poorly. As a result, we have lost excellent female journalists because we failed to understand and acknowledge the natural changes in their lives that come with motherhood.
Other challenges such as sexualization of female journalists exhibited in the way some of them are expected to dress has undermined their professionalism paving way for other hurdles such as sexual harassment. The portrayal of women as beauty queens while overlooking their professionalism has also increased their vulnerability to online trolling and made them easy targets to other forms of abuse including intimidation and attacks. Without putting more emphasis on their professionalism and supporting them in this sense, it will be difficult to insulate them from such threats.
The changing dimensions and presentation of the challenges facing women in the newsroom and the media as a whole call for a dynamic approach by women, gender and general human rights activists. Many gender and equality actors in the media still employ old tactics when responding to new challenges while the aggressors and the oppressors of women in the newsroom remain, their modus operandi has changed to subtler hard-to-pin approaches, in order to escape the radar of new laws and strong women representation in the media. In some cases, these issues have been legitimatized in law.
While there is more funding and more actors seeking to weaken oppression and support women in media, these threats and barriers remain. The actors need to re- strategize. Stakeholders should identify the main barriers and threats to women in media, how they have evolved over time, examine existing responses and prepare to abandon the old ineffective approaches that treated the symptoms leaving the root causes unaddressed.
We need to adapt an inclusive approach to mainstream gender in the newsroom where women and men are given equal opportunities based on their competences. Men should be included in these approaches to help create more awareness and take a lead role in empowering and supporting women in their career. It is also the high time this debate left hotels and entered the media houses to ignite the conversation internally and provide practical solutions to effectively address the continued marginalization of women in media. Once women are appointed to positions of power in media, then one gender – men – will not continue to dominate media content as sources and actors but will inject diversity and inclusivity of views to buttress tenets of equitable societies led by a media that is sensitive to gender internally and externally.
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