Global voices detail a history of gender bias in journalism

For the past two years, the OurBlook team has been busy collecting opinions from diverse industry experts on the future of journalism. We had an unsettling realization – if journalists were having a hard time keeping up with the changing media landscape, journalism departments were having an even harder time. This instigated our team to launch the University Partnership Program [UPP], which provides professors with free and customized Web, technology and research help to make classrooms more interactive, and help students gain new media skills.

One of the most successful UPP stories of transformation has been with a gender and mass media class at the University of Iowa, taught by Pamela Creedon, former director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at both the University of Iowa and Kent State University. With some digital assistance from the OurBlook team, Creedon has created an interactive classroom setting that exposes students to critical journalism principles and the Web and connects students with industry leaders.

Each semester, the class conducts an interview series with successful women in online journalism. These interviews are published on, under a CopyLeft license and in a “blook” format. Additionally, using available Web tools, Creedon hosts several virtual guests who provide the students with “real-time” industry insight. To complement the classroom learning, students also have access to a Future Journalist Resource Center, created specifically for UPP students by the OurBlook team. While the class project allows students to leave with a portfolio piece, it also provides them with an opportunity to give back to the journalism industry by increasing the amount of authoritative and journalism-focused information found on the Web.

This past semester, Creedon’s class decided to focus internationally (view project). The class reached out to bloggers, reporters, editors and professors in 17 countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Chile and Zimbabwe. The goal of the interview series was to understand the experience of women communicators throughout the world, and to gather opinions on the future of the news media. The following are some of the responses given in regards to the interviewees’ experience with gender bias(es). You can view the full interview series here.

On Gender Bias:

Fifteen of the students’ 21 interviews were communicators who contribute to, Women’s International Perspective, Inc., which reports news, world opinion and commentary through feature articles, byline portal, headlines and community blogs. Students reviewed the site and found women around the globe whom they would like to interview online.

“In the past year, it’s become strikingly apparent to all of us at The WIP (and the women that we work with) that to continue to call injustices or gaps in equality ‘women’s issues’ only serves to marginalize them. We should be calling them societal issues or human rights issues – this is the only way that we’ll ever see any real movement towards equality or a shift in the current power paradigm. To me, when American women are paid as little as 69¢ for every dollar earned by a man for commensurate work, that’s not a gender issue, that’s an issue with the way our society has placed value on the efforts of half the country’s population. And does that serve the country’s economy or GDP or the wellbeing of families? No. The paradigm of ‘us’ and ‘them’ needs to be laid to rest if ever we’re to see true shift, because what benefits women, benefits everyone.” Sarah McGowan, Founding Features and Photo Editor of The Women’s International Perspective in the United States.

“When I was doing my internship at the New Vision, I wanted to report on sports, but I never got a chance. I believed the editor thought ‘what can a woman do in sports.'” Halimah Abdullah Kisule, journalist in Uganda.

“In terms of countries like the US and the UK I consider men and women to play an equal role in the media already, and therefore in the years to come would like to see both working to high standards of respectable and reliable journalism… In developing countries and oppressive regimes I would love to see the number of female journalists continue to rise. Online journalism and blogging both have a huge scope for anonymity and so can (and should) be used to tell stories that would otherwise be kept hidden.” Natalie Hart, an English freelance journalist.

“In terms of promotions, gender bias [exists] when assigning reporters in the field, men always send women to weaker assignments, give them weaker positions. I’ve been senior reporter for over five years and yet those coming in are being promoted on the basis of gender.” Delphine Hampande, a senior reporter in Zambia.

“The main challenge to me is being a working woman, mother and a housewife. It is very hard to balance the three. Journalism involves fieldwork and that is really hard, yet I have to work hard to earn as a freelancer. Many men do not trust female journalists but I am happy my husband supports me even amidst all these.” Halimah Abdullah Kisule, a journalist from Uganda.

“I actually consider being a female journalist to be one of my advantages. I think it’s because people consider women to be less aggressive, less hardcore. I feel like that stereotype really helped me to hide my true aggression, my true, hardcore journalism. When I go out to report I always try to show a very feminine side but inside I know I’m a hardnosed journalist.” Xin Feng, journalist from China, currently residing in the US.

“Yes, I have been favored for being a woman.” Louise Belfrage, former WIP news editor and Swedish national currently working as a cultural diplomacy advisor in the Middle East.

“Over the years, I experienced sexual harassment from editors and other journalists, and one editor at a news organization in the 1970s refused to even let me leave a job application because he said they preferred to hire men. In the academy, I have had the same problems other females have had — we are still trapped mostly in the lower and middle faculty ranks. Men outnumber us in higher ranks and they make much more money than we do.” Carolyn Byerly, associate professor at Howard University in the United States.

“Absolutely, and I think all women have. Television reporting is dominated by women, but newsrooms are run by the old boys’ club. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive bullying. You’re ignored a lot. Women who are Type A’s fare better, but it’s tough when you’re a woman with brown skin. People expect you to behave a certain way because of your ethnicity, then act surprised or taken aback when you exhibit aggression or assertiveness. This industry encourages and applauds alpha-female behavior. It comes with the territory. So you’ve got to play the game — or sit on the bench and watch how it’s played.” Kelly Roche, TV reporter in Canada.

“Fortunately for me I haven’t experienced any kind of gender bias in my writing career. And the reason could be that I’m more into online journalism now.” Lesley Biswas, freelance journalist in India.

“Gender bias is a subtle and tricky phenomenon to pin down, but manifests in many different ways, both within the newsroom and in the way stories are covered. One interesting side of this is seen in radio voice work… I feel very lucky that I had an embarrassing incident early in my career that motivated me to master the art of voice work — a story I did was re-voiced by an older male reporter before it went to air. I pressed the editor to explain why, and he said that the story really needed a credible voice, and mine just didn’t carry enough weight. He suggested that I should try channeling Winston Churchill the next time I had to voice a serious piece — an odd suggestion, but I followed it, and it’s worked a treat ever since… Other girls have not been so lucky, unintentionally becoming stuck in a niche of puff pieces that suit their less resonant voices.” Amanda Strong, journalist at Radio New Zealand.

“Any female journalist who says she hasn’t faced gender biases is blind or deluding herself. In my first job they automatically put me, like all the other new female journalists, onto the Women’s Page, until they gave me a battery of IQ tests (which they did for every new employee). They called me in and said “do you know you are very, very smart? We can’t waste you on the Women’s Page, we will put you on politics.” I looked around at the men on the politics section and not one had to be smart to get there, not one would automatically be put into a soft men’s page. Cathy Strong, former newspaper, magazine, radio and television journalist in the US and New Zealand, a professor at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.

“In many parts of the world and not Africa only, gender biases are typical. In old form print journalism, some male journalists used to laugh at women feature writers…they said women wrote the soft stories and they, the men, reported hard news.” Philo Ikonya, Freelance Journalist in Kenya.

“When I first started in radio I was told that microphones didn’t like women’s voices!… Everyone in public media was and still is incredibly paranoid about appearing to be the slightest bit pro-feminist.” Frieda Werden, Co-Founder of WINGS: Women’s International News Gathering Service, USA, who now resides in Canada.

This article was co-authored by Abby Moon, an intern with OurBlook under the UPP program.

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  1. says:

    Hi, I’m Frieda Werden, cited in the last paragraph of this article. I want to make clear what isn’t obvious about that quote now that is has been taken out of the context of paper written by the student to whom I gave that interview. I was referring to US public media only. Canadian public media does significantly better.