Beating the gender trap

Women outnumber men in the Australian media but it is still harder for them to reach the top. It’s time to act, says Caroline Jones. Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox

My half-century in broadcasting has been a dream run. Thanks to a succession of managers – all male because men “owned the game” – doors of opportunity have been opened for me all my working life.

I was able to accept a part-time traineeship at the ABC in 1960s Canberra because my generous employer allowed me flexible hours in my office job. I was invited to the Big Smoke in Sydney to join This Day Tonight as the program’s first woman reporter (when I got the phone call, it seemed like the voice of God at the other end of the line). I was elevated to 4Corners as its first woman anchor (the headlines read “Girl takes over 4Cs”, and a columnist in The Daily Telegraph in Sydney regretted that “the Jones girl does not particularly appeal to me as a sex symbol”). I was recruited to live morning current affairs on ABC Sydney radio, invited to join the original 60 Minutes team, and asked to develop The Search for Meaning programs on ABC Radio National.

And thanks to all-male ABC camera crews, second to none in the world, I learned to report events through powerful images. It’s been an extraordinary sequence of privileged appointments. Women were already doing research, script assistance and other work vital to program production, but “on air” people like me were always given the kudos. Perhaps the ABC provides a kinder workplace than the commercial arena. Perhaps being the first-and-only woman in several prominent jobs, I presented no threat.

I like working with men. I became one of the boys quite easily, playing snooker and drinking middies (for Gens Y and X, that’s medium-sized glasses of beer) at the 729 Club. As a mark of would-be sophistication, I smoked thin, black Danish cigars. Unfortunately I did inhale, and now I’d gladly give up that youthful affectation to retrieve the lung capacity I squandered.

It didn’t take me long to discern the potential of my position. If I could do these high-profile jobs well, it would surely open the door for other women, and I saw that as my responsibility.

I was born with ink in my veins. My grandfather, Ashley Pountney, was editor of some of the first newspapers in northern NSW. But my exclusively professional focus had its drawbacks. At times of the most intense concentration, like the years of working simultaneously on Four Corners and live morning radio, I felt driven. I never knew when I had done enough preparation. Although I had studied a number of university subjects, I had not completed a degree and I was conscious of my lack of education.

In March 2013, Sunanda Creagh, the news editor of The Conversation, wrote about “imposter syndrome” (in “Where are the women in the media?” by Wendy Bacon, Julie Posetti and Jenna Price). I identified with it immediately – that sense that I may not be good enough, that someone might find out I was bluffing, pretending to know more than I did.

I did not know how to balance work and leisure, always giving priority to my job over the nurturing of friendships. I did not know how to “network”. And the big one, for a woman: when given the choice, I opted to pursue my career in preference to marriage and family. Without a role model, I could not see myself fulfilling the two roles without compromising both. I do admire tremendously those who succeed in this balancing act today. But I’ve had more than my share of good fortune in a long, stimulating career and have never felt an entitlement to “have it all”.

However, with hindsight, I see that I lacked a mentor and a network, and I hear the same lament from young women today. So when I was invited to Marcus Strom to be patron of a new group – Women in Media – to offer mentoring and support, I accepted with enthusiasm.

Women now outnumber men in the Australian media. But research in New Matilda in March this year shows that these women, typically, are younger, earn less, have lower status positions than their male colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than men. Women are scarce at board, CEO and editorial levels in mainstream media, and Australia is below international standards in this regard. The research also revealed that opinion and political reportage is dominated by men.

Creagh, in New Matilda, suggests men self-nominate while women wait to be picked, that men are more likely to push for a raise where women are more likely to accept as non-negotiable the pay that is offered, and that the coincidence of childrearing age with potential career progress is a particular challenge for women.

For women to enjoy equality of opportunity, solutions to some of these problems will need to come from the industry – difficult when today’s digital revolution is decimating job numbers. But with the support of Women in Media, the Media Alliance will make new claims for equal pay, superannuation payment during parental leave, and equality of retirement income. It will also work with media companies to combat sexual harassment and bullying, and equalise women’s career prospects.

This is not to position women working in media as the victims. On the contrary, Women in Media aims to strengthen young women to stand their ground with confidence in a competitive industry, to provide networking to challenge pockets of male-dominated culture, and to alleviate the isolation of freelance work.

Generous offers of mentoring by senior media women and the passionate response of younger women promises a positive future for our fledgling campaign, and we look to our male colleagues at all levels to partner us in achieving a level playing field for women in media.


Caroline Jones, nearing her half century in journalism, is presenter of ABC TV’s Australian Story and Patron of Women in Media

Cathy Wilcox is a cartoonist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald. She is the winner of the 2013 Walkley Award for best cartoon