Women are still marginalised in media: a rebuke from the late Adele Horin

It’s International Women’s Day. Here we republish a speech by the renowned late journalist Adele Horin from August 2015 at an event hosted by Per Capita, a progressive Australian think tank. Horin had sharp words for a news industry tradition she perceived from the days of the ‘women’s page’ — of failing to reward or promote women equally with men, and of sidelining issues affecting women in their publications. A long but worthy read and, we hope, a conversation starter.

Thanks to Stephen Hutcheon at the Sydney Morning Herald and Adele’s partner Paul Ireland for the tip and the text. We have edited slightly for style. Another good read is Horin’s obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald: Trailblazing journalist Adele Horin took it to the edge. Walkley archive photo of Horin above by Anna Kucera for the SMH.

Thank you all for coming. Let me start by giving a little background.

Soon after I went to work on The West Australian, Perth’s morning newspaper, in 1969, I was assigned to the women’s pages. There are probably not many of us left in journalism who can claim such a dubious heritage.

Within a few years women’s pages were gone. Germaine Greer made one of her visits back to Australia in 1971 and fired up a meeting of about 50 women journos who were ripe for rebellion. After that the days of the women’s pages were numbered.

Our collective consciousness was a couple of years away from being raised.

I must say in 1969 I wasn’t unhappy to be assigned to the women’s pages. For a start it meant I no longer had to type out the weather page. This was an unbelievably boring, all-day task assigned to cadets and required scrupulous attention to detail like barometric pressures. I once typed in the wrong time for the sunrise and drew complaints from every farmer, fisherman and Country Party MP in the state. I’d never seen a sunrise myself. I had no idea of how important this small detail was.

I began at the West around the same time as Geraldine Doogue, and Helen Trinca, now a senior manager at The Australian. And all of us young female cadets were expressly forbidden by management from wearing pantsuits to work. You can see we were at a pre-feminist stage of development. On the women’s pages we dealt with serious issues like health and education — but not topics such as abortion or domestic violence.

Our collective consciousness was a couple of years away from being raised. Even so, I’ll forever be grateful to the editor Betty Sim, who’d well and truly ditched coverage of weddings by then – A role model of serious, thoughtful journalists, (who) taught me so much. It was not all bad to get a start on such a woman’s page.

We’re all familiar with the difficult plight newspapers are in today, and mainstream television, too. But one of the issues I want to raise this evening is whether the explosion of online publications, blogs, and websites written and run by women give us new opportunities and power — or are they a throwback to the women’s pages?

Some like the wonderfully titled The News With Nipples are in-your-face feminist. Others like Mia Freedman’s website Mamamia, Women’s Agenda within the Crikey stable run by the admirable Georgina Dent, and Wendy Harmer’s late lamented website The Hoopla, draw big female audiences because of their content, the writers, and pro-feminist stance. There’s also the Sydney Morning Herald online site Daily Life, with its talented and strongly feminist blogger, Clementine Ford.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, you might remember, invited 20 of the women who blog or run digital publications to drinks in 2013. It was said at the time between them those 20 women had a combined audience of 3.5 million. A while ago I joined their ranks, starting my own blog, Coming of Age. Here I write the equivalent of a weekly column about issues to do with being an ageing baby boomer in an ageing society. Go Google it.

Am I ending my career as I started it – on a women’s page – this time in cyberspace? This time without a salary? And with a smaller readership? Is this emblematic of what’s happening to women in journalism?

At the age of 61, I took a voluntary redundancy package from the Herald with about 80 others, and in a modest way tried to re-invent myself. But I wonder whether I’ve come the full circle. Am I ending my career as I started it – on a women’s page – this time in cyberspace? This time without a salary? And with a smaller readership? Is this emblematic of what’s happening to women in journalism?

Yes, there are some feminist-oriented bloggers and websites, as I’ve mentioned, but many of the most popular sites by women bloggers have a whiff of the old women’s page feel about them — there are lots of blogs about parenting, funny accounts of family life, the battle with head lice, PMT, home renovations, tummy tucks and so on. If you have the time to devote to your iPad, there’s masses to read by and for women.

But it’s still the predominantly male hierarchy in the editorial suite and on the board at the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian, and (less so) the ABC; it’s the Alan Joneses of the world in old media, to say nothing of the New York Times, The Washington Post, the London broadsheets we can easily access now who retain the real power, and the big audiences, however diminished. Whatever power those women bloggers wielded, it wasn’t sufficient to help Julia.

If a woman journalist wants to write about Canberra politics, or corruption in state politics, or the shenanigans of the banks — not about mothering or work/life balance or at what age baby boomers should cut their adult children off the financial teat, then unless it’s the Guardian online, old media with its online offshoots, I think is still where the power lies, and the audiences, and where you also have the legal protection of defamation lawyers.

It would be very difficult for top female journalists like Kate McClymont and Adele Ferguson to work without the backup of a big organisation.

Good, thorough, in-depth journalism — as distinct from opinion/analysis — takes time, and money. And Australia’s online publications just don’t have the resources to pay properly or get enough ads to fund many full-time journalists, women or men. And unless it’s a very big scoop, the fragmentation of online media means stories on the smaller websites don’t resonate in Canberra like say the Herald-Sun story on Bronnie’s $5,000 helicopter ride.

I re-learnt the power of old media when one Saturday morning I awoke to find I’d suddenly attracted dozens of new subscribers to my blog.

Bloggers know increasing your subscription base is usually a fairly slow accretion process. What had prompted this rush? Well, I eventually learnt ABC television News 24 had broadcast, at 11.30 the previous night, a Sydney Writers Festival panel discussion I’d been on with Anne Summers and Wendy Harmer. News 24, always desperate for content, tapes everything that moves! I mean who wants to watch News 24 at 11.30 on a Friday night! Well, thousands and thousands of people, apparently.

If you want to earn an income as a journalist in the digital space, it’s very difficult. A lot of women writing for online publications are academics with university salaries. Few online publications pay contributors properly. Huffington Post the latest entrant, not at all. The Hoopla tried to pay contributors and went broke. So, too, for the Global Mail. Many sites want to reprint my blog posts for free though each piece of 900 words takes me about two days to research, write etc. Recently Mamamia’s newish site Debrief Daily for women over 40 offered me at first $50 to reprint my work.

I’d be very nervous if a daughter of mine wanted to do media studies.

Sydney lost many of the best women journalists who took redundancy with me. If they needed to earn a proper income, they abandoned journalism. They went to work for universities, government departments, politicians, any institution smart enough to pay for their skills. I admit it was always hard to break into mainstream media. Yes, it’s better the websites exist than don’t because they have given a very small core of men and women proper jobs — but not that many, I’d venture. I’d be very nervous if a daughter of mine wanted to do media studies. The blogs and websites may be entertaining and educational for female readers, but they’ve been of modest use to female journos or aspirants who want to build a career and pay a mortgage and childcare.

A second issue I’d like you to consider is this: Are we marginalising stories about women, society, psychology etc.? Are we corralling them at the back of the paper again in a virtual women’s page? By posting them, for example, on Daily Life, instead of in the mainstream newspaper or more prominently on the paper’s online site?

I try to be more positive on this. Today’s bloggers and female led websites can be seen as being less in the tradition of the women’s page and more in the tradition of the 19th-century suffragettes and journalists like Maybanke Anderson, and Louisa Lawson who edited newspapers like The Woman’s Voice and Dawn.

Their small publications saw a niche the big boys in the mainstream press had been blind to. They proved to be prescient on subjects that ranged from Federation to contraception.

They didn’t last.

The big boy editors thought, “Aha, our newspaper needs a women’s page!” Part of me wishes some of the stuff in Daily Life, for example, would be mainstreamed. But I know it wouldn’t make it, partly because the SMH is so thin due to a paucity of advertising and the online news site so selective. So on balance I think it’s better that many women’s voices are out there today and find an audience online somewhere. It’s unlikely they’d get it in mainstream media. I only wish they’d be paid properly.

Women comprise about 70 per cent of journalism students, and they now outnumber men working in the Australian media. But they’re typically younger. They earn less. They have less powerful positions than their male colleagues.

So how is it for women left in mainstream media? Women comprise about 70 per cent of journalism students, and they now outnumber men working in the Australian media. But they’re typically younger. They earn less. They have less powerful positions than their male colleagues. I’m using a couple of sources here — a 2012 University of the Sunshine Coast survey of journalists, and the work done in 2013 by Wendy Bacon and her colleagues through the Centre for Independent Journalism and New Matilda … It’s the same story when I asked my mentee — who works on a big regional newspaper and is in her 30s — does she feel strongly about this women in media issue. She shot back “pay” — all the men at her newspaper were ‘senior journalists’ and all the women stuck on a lower grade with every excuse under the sun given as to why they couldn’t move. Her older female colleague emailed me a similar and quite heartbreaking response. Promotion and raises are very difficult. Especially for women.

So women are there but men mostly wield the power. At the Australian, Helen Trinca is managing editor, Michelle Gunn is editor of the Weekend Australia, at the SMH Judith Whelan is news editor.

But less than 10 per cent of women respondents to the University of the Sunshine Coast survey could be classified as senior managers, as compared to 20 per cent of men. The glass ceiling is still a hurdle.

When the trade publication Radio Today last year assembled the lists of the most influential men and women in radio, including station owners and producers, not just announcers, it came up with 27 women and 40 men. When the Daily Telegraph rounded up the most influential people in TV news for photo shoots a couple of years ago, there were 32 men and only 18 women.

And of course women in television encounter the twin dragons of sexism and ageism. Among the influential men in the photo I counted eight in their 50s and 60s; among the women, only Lisa Wilkinson. Admittedly three were missing — Liz Hayes, Tracy Grimshaw and Jenny Brockie. Progress? But it’s hard to imagine a woman with the craggy face of Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy fronting any major TV program, at least on the commercial networks.

When women do break through to the top, like Amanda Wilson, who became the first female editor in the SMH’s 180 years, it’s the Joan Kirner syndrome in force: Put a woman in when all is lost and there’s dirty work to be done. Amanda was the perpetual deputy editor and was put in charge to drastically restructure the paper — slash staff, outsource the sub-editing, and try to save a news-gathering organisation in decline. It was grim and thankless work. And it attracted a lot of venom. She wrote about it later for the Guardian. One anonymous email she received called her a “shallow, talentless, fat arsed and unloved bitch … no wonder your partner dumped you early on.”

She lasted 18 months before her position became untenable. Sylvie Kaufman lasted 18 months at Le Monde as editor in chief. Le Monde’s female editor Natalie Nougayrede lasted a year. The NYT first female editor Jill Abramson lasted a marathon three years. All of this fairly recently. Bossy? Not team players? You know the drill.

Amanda wrote that women in media rarely walk over hot coals to be senior editors. They struggle with lack of confidence and the dread of taking on too much between work and family. The hours are pitiless. One talented senior woman I know just couldn’t apply for a senior editor’s job because she couldn’t rely on her husband (who worked from home) to do the necessary care of his teenage children. A man with children the same age got the job. The solution? Mentoring young women, targets, a more rigorous promotion procedure — the ABC’s public service processes have produced a much better result for women. Intentionally seeking out women for boards, for promotion to management. You need a variety of women in senior positions to give younger women diverse role models as leaders.

Over two decades, the newsy daily stories I focused on — about child care, children’s and women’s issues — worked their way to the front page if warranted; they were no longer corralled at the back.

I know I’ve painted a rather dark picture. If you don’t want to run the thing, it can be a terrific job. Having said all this I want to say, I loved my career in journalism. Newspapers were a unique place to work – especially at the National Times, Radio National and the SMH. I was part of a hugely fun family, and mostly with decent editors. As a Herald weekly columnist, I never experienced political interference. Painfully, over two decades, the newsy daily stories I focused on — about child care, children’s and women’s issues — worked their way to the front page if warranted; they were no longer corralled at the back.

They’d become political issues.

Unfortunately in the more recent clickbait era, where an editor can count the stories readers favour, stories about struggling single mums are not given much prominence. Also, I love being a blogger. It’s a much smaller world but I have the most wonderful readers, with whom I feel a real connection, and they make the wisest, most sensible comments on every post. So it feels in some way like a more collaborative exercise.

The women’s page again? Not exactly. Because men are reading about these issues that were once considered “soft and fit for females”. And that’s a bit of progress.