Pals over gals: Media companies have failed to fix gender disparities

A dispiriting new survey of Australian women shows just how far we have come: not very. Study coauthor Katelin McInerney, director of media at MEAA, reports.

When the Women in Media survey was launched last year, it was 20 years since we had embarked on a workplace survey of this kind.

Women in Media, backed by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, wanted to a take a snapshot of working life for women working in the media in the digital age.

The last time MEAA conducted a survey of this kind was 1996 – 10 years after the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act passed in 1986 and led to greater numbers of women entering the Australian workforce. It was before the rise of the Internet, when the rivers of gold flowed and female university graduates were starting to outnumber their male counterparts across a number of notable fields, including media and journalism.

Since that time we’ve had a female prime minister, the women’s World Cup soccer final was the second most watched sporting event on the 2015 FIFA calendar, and women now make up 48.5per cent of the broadcasting and 51 per cent of the publishing industry.

Many women surveyed commented that they thought the harassment had become far subtler than the overt discrimination and bottom-pinching of the 90s.

But that has not translated into gender parity or equal opportunity, our survey of 1,054 Australian journalists showed.

“I recently found out that a staff member who was directly below me … earned exactly 19 per cent more than me,” said one of the anonymous respondents, a mid-career editor and producer. “Since I recently applied for maternity leave, this staff member has also been promoted to a senior position that had been promised to me prior to my pregnancy.”

We conducted the online survey in late 2015 by emailing Women in Media and MEAA members and sharing links on social media. The sample isn’t representative of journalists as a whole: Nearly all the respondents were female, as expected given that those most affected are more motivated to respond. We collected demographics like pay, age, experience, and type of media work, and found that respondents varied across the entire expected spectrum, although they skewed toward in-house journalists as opposed to freelance, public relations and communications.

Nonetheless we believe our findings — including the sheer number of troubling reports — provide weighty evidence that discrimination remains rife in the media.

Respondents repeatedly used the phrase “mates over merit” to explain why women are not getting ahead, or even keeping up with their male counterparts in pay and opportunity, and why the numbers of women further up the ranks declines rapidly the higher one goes.

The results of the survey, published in the Women in Media Mates over Merit report revealed an ongoing failure by media and communications companies to effectively identify and tackle the issue of gender disparity in their workplaces.

The gender pay gap in the Information, Media and Telecommunications sector remains at 23.3 per cent, considerably higher than the national average of 19.5 per cent.

When asked whether they felt they operated in a meritocracy where performance was the key factor in “getting ahead” and resulted in equal pay for men and women, just 2 per cent of our survey participants believed there was parity.

About half the respondents reported they had experienced intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace.

Research bears that out, with one 2013 study revealing that while the media salary range for all journalists is between $54,000 -$72,000, only 35.6 per cent of women earn more than $72,000 while 53.1 per cent of men do. Head higher up in the food chain that figure blows out – 9.8per cent of men working in the media industry earn more than $144,000 a year, but only 1.2 per cent of women do.

About half the respondents reported they had experienced intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace, similar to our 1996 survey.

Many women surveyed commented that they thought the harassment had become far subtler than the overt discrimination and bottom-pinching of the 90s.

Worse still, a whopping 41 per cent were afraid to report discrimination or harassment as they felt the policies in place on paper across the media landscape were not enforced in practice.

The rise of the journalist or communications professional as social media “brand” has led to a profound increase in women being trolled and threatened through those channels – often in the most violent and degrading way.

Respondents reported receiving rape threats, threats to their families, harassing emails and phone messages, and cyber-stalked.

The Mates over Merit results showed in-house journalists are more likely to experience social media harassment, with 41 per cent reporting being trolled, while freelancers are most likely to be cyber-stalked (18 per cent).

And while many female media professionals shrug it off as a hazard of the job, an alarming number of respondents reported that social media harassment had changed the way they interact with audiences on social media and several respondents identified it had led them to modify their voice online, or withdraw entirely from the social media space.

Only 16.5 per cent of respondents indicated that they were aware their employer had policies in place to deal with online harassment – 52 per cent said they were unaware of any such policy being in place at their workplace.

In prime time AM and FM radio programming, females made up 27 per cent of the hosting line-up.

More than half of the women who participated in the survey believe that more should be done to deter such behaviour and suggestions included legal action in line with defamation laws, criminal prosecution, and more explicit guidelines on how to respond to trolling and online harassment.

Male voices continue to get more weight than female ones. The Media Insights review conducted for the Mates over Merit report details the analysis of more than 9,597 reports from Australian press, radio and television news coverage throughout 2015, including popular radio programs and TV shows, as well as news broadcasts and online sites.

It showed that even on shows like Q&A and The Project the gender disparity of both regular hosting panel members and guests were skewed markedly against female participation. In prime-time AM and FM radio programming, females made up 27 per cent of the hosting line-up, and were far less likely to be identified as the producers of media content.

Women continue to struggle balancing career with family responsibilities – both children and now aging parents – with many reporting the policies in place at 87 per cent of media workplaces are not worth the paper they are written on.

“It is often looked down on if you’re not ‘on call’ all the time, and this can be particularly hard for women, who are more commonly in carer roles,” said one respondent, an online communications manager.

A quarter of women reported experienced difficulty returning to their jobs, and once back, many respondents report difficulties in a 24/7 news cycle being able to access genuine flexible working arrangements and meaningful part-time work opportunities, and blokey culture and “presenteeism” meant male media workers found it difficult to take time out of work to take on some of the load.

Mates over Merit has painted a troubling picture of the daily realities faced by women forging a career in both journalism and communications spheres.

That is why Women in Media and MEAA are calling for media companies to take a proactive stance to close the gender gap in media organisations by initiating:

• Audits, and action, on the entrenched gender pay gap
• Improved strategies and training for social media harassment
• Anti-discrimination policies to be put into practice and better policed to encourage flexible work arrangements that allow women to fully participate in media workplaces.

Katelin McInerney is the director of Media with MEAA.

The full WIM Mates over Merit report is available to download online at womeninmedia.net. Thanks go to the dedicated team of Claire Waddington (ISentia), Beverley Uther(Fairfax), Tracey Spicer, LJ Loch (Republic PR), and Seira Aikins (Dream Consortium) for their dedication to closing the gender gap.