Are quotas the answer?

This was originally written as a university assignment and aimed at  Press Gazette.

Hundreds of  journalists in Germany have called for gender quotas in top media jobs. Women in the UK media give their opinion on whether we should be calling for the same here…

Rebekah Brooks and Sly Bailey: both high profile, both women, and both out of the job. Whatever your opinion on them, they were part of a very small group of women in the industry who make it to the top of their game.

The lack of women in powerful media positions is not just a UK problem. In February, in a letter sent to around 250 editors, publishers and managers across Germany,  journalists called for quotas to get 30% women in executive jobs in editorial departments within the next five years.

Quotas have been in the news recently in Britain in the context of business but the issue has not been seriously raised here in relation to the media. When suggested in any sector they are controversial but are they the only way to equality?

What limited research there has been into the amounts of women in the UK, and global, media workforce has shown that despite high numbers of women entering the industry they are not working their way up the career ladder.

In 2011 the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) released the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media. Covering 170,000 people they found that 73% of the top management jobs globally are occupied by men.

Looking at 16 news companies in the UK across newspapers, television and radio the IWMF found that although women represented 45% of the combined workforce, at senior management level the proportion of women was 29.5%. The UK companies studied, “exhibit entrenched institutional practices of marginalising women in their newsrooms and decision-making hierarchies.”

The trend is similar across media platforms. The Fawcett Society carried out research in 2007 which showed two woman editors out of the 17 national newspapers surveyed. If the study were to be done again today this would be just one, Tina Weaver of the Sunday Mirror. Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) was replaced by a man when she left The Sun to become chief executive of News International. The 2007 also showed 6% women among deputy editors at nationals.

In 2011 Skillset released research into the UK broadcasting industry that said that while women working in radio were better qualified than men (73% had degrees compare to 70% of men), they earned, on average £2,200 less each year. They were also just 34% of senior managers and only 17% at Board level. In television the numbers at board level were 29%.

Dr Cynthia Carter, of Cardiff University, is a leading academic in gender and the media and founding co-editor of the Feminist Media Studies journal. She says there needs to be more research done into why women are not progressing. “A lot of the top jobs need 24/7 availability,” she explains. “As women get into their 30s they start having issues with partners and children and start taking positions that don’t lead to the top jobs to allow them to have a life outside work.”

In Skillset’s research only 16% of women in UK radio had dependent children compared to 25% of men. A report on the film industry commissioned by the UK Film Council, published in 2007, echoed this saying 36% of men lived with dependent children whereas only 14% of women did.

Janet Street-Porter raised the issue in the 1997 documentary A Night In With The Girls saying society still expects women to fill a role. She said women needed time to themselves when they get home from work to “stop being a boss woman and become a normal person.” She suggested men are used to being bossy all the time.

Francesca Preece, editorial assistant at The Sun, says that women in journalism have to fight their corner. “It takes a very strong woman to break through the prejudice. If you had two equally qualified young people, one male and one female, the male journo would almost definitely be taken more seriously,” she explains.

The main argument for the introduction of gender quotas in the UK media follows that although change is happening it’s not happening quickly or thoroughly enough. People recruit in their own image, and will continue to do so until someone shakes things up. Dr Carter describes this as informal and unconscious discrimination where men often see themselves in a candidate of the same gender and similar background.

It is argued that quotas are compensating for the barriers a particular group faces and that as audiences do not get to choose who runs the media so they deserve a more representative workforce to better cater to their needs.

Quota Project, a database of gender quotas for women, use Norway as one of the examples they say prove quotas work. A law was passed there in 2003 to allocate 40% of boardroom places in publicly traded companies to women. There are now have 37.9% women on company boards whereas the UK has 12.5%.

But those people against quotas see them as patronising, elevating people to positions they are not skilled or ready for. “Hiring more women at the expense of men for example won’t make male journos respect them any more than before…They would just be seen as filling a quota and not there on merit.” says Preece.

“If Rebekah Brooks managed it without a quota at one of the most male dominated titles, I am sure many others can elsewhere in Fleet Street.”

Do we need gender quotas in the UK? Journalists Alison Clarke and Michelle Perry go head to head.

Yes

Authour and journalist Alison Clarke is the founder and co-editor of Women’s Views On News.

“Quotas are a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut but where they have been introduced, in boardrooms and parliamentary representation, they do make a difference…Quotas serve a purpose and they should be time limited so it’s not that they’re on the statute book forever.

“I’m 57 and I’ve heard that argument [that we should wait for change] for 30 years. Well, I’ll be dead before it does; it’s nonsense. It won’t happen because we all hire in our image.

“The UK media industry is not just dominated by men at the top, but when you drill all the way down then newsrooms are dominated by men as a result of which our news is filtered through that male lens. They’re deciding who should be heard and who shouldn’t be heard.

“One woman is never enough they reckon you need about 30% so you have a critical mass then things start to change, so you get a critical mass with parliament, suddenly parliament starts talking about childcare, maternity rights, lots of issues which are of more direct relevance to woman and I think the same thing would happen in the newspaper industry.”

“I would say that most women who work within that industry know that it’s very male dominated but if you asked an awful lot of men they wouldn’t necessarily be aware of that. Or if they were they wouldn’t be aware of the impact that it has on women in terms of the culture.

“People on the right argue against it because they say it’s tokenistic and that they don’t want to be a token woman and that they want to get there on their own merit. My argument would be that there are plenty of women out there with plenty of talent and there’s a reason they’re not getting on and it’s got nothing to do with their ability.”

No

Michelle Perry is a journalist specialising in business and finance. She is the editor of CFO World a website for chief financial officers.

“I personally wouldn’t back any quotas in any industry, for any reason. What I’ve seen in business the threat of quotas is enough to make people make change. People don’t like change whether they’re a man or woman and they especially don’t like being told to do it from outsiders.

“Even though journalism is predominately populated by men it is changing and in the younger ranks coming through now there’s probably a greater balance of men and women. Personally I’ve always worked with male bosses and with a majority of men on news desks and I’ve never felt it’s a problem and I’ve never felt that I was inhibited from progressing in my role.

“I think it [the workplace] is changing because more and more women are in the workplace and want to go back to work after they’ve had kids. I think more organisations now realize that they have to have flexible structures to incorporate this very talented workforce that is being excluded.

“Someone should do an industry piece of research then we can see who’s in all levels, then if there is a problem you can work from facts and not presumption. Perhaps it won’t change unless it’s raised and we just carry on plugging along and perhaps women don’t rise up and leave the workforce and don’t vocalise why they are. I think there’s also an issue that women tend to be not as bolshie as men and perhaps wouldn’t go for the roles that they don’t feel confident about.

“I find that if you kind of force the situation then you end up getting people into positions who perhaps aren’t ready. Not because they don’t have the skills or they don’t have the ability to get the skills, but because they haven’t had the experience…they may fail and that will be a disservice to all of us.”

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