For young reporters, journalism is a game of chicken. You can swerve away early, taking a relatively cushy job in public relations, but if you wait too long to jump ship, you might find yourself without a job at all. It’s hard to think about anything other than survival.
That’s a metaphor that Vivian Smith shared in her talk at Ryerson on October 8, taken from an interview with the Calgary Herald’s Jen Gerson for her PhD thesis, which she turned into the book Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers.
A lot of the young j-schoolers in the room probably think about gender only when they notice the large majority of their classmates are women. But those who graduate into newsrooms find a whole different reality. Only a third of editorial employees are women, and the numbers get smaller the higher up the masthead you go.
Entry-level reporters don’t spend much time thinking about gender, either. When you’re wondering if your job will still exist in six months, it’s hard to think about longer-term challenges such as structural discrimination. Smith, who spent four years interviewing journalists between the ages of 25 and 61 for her thesis, noticed that the younger journalists saw themselves as individuals able to take on anything, including sexism.
Sure, overt hostility is much less common than when women were first entering newsrooms. Obviously it still happens (you remember Jian, right?), but many women are able to enjoy successful careers in the field and feel like they are treated equally at work.
But here’s what Smith’s research found: the same inequalities that faced women in the early twentieth century are still limiting or ending women’s careers. They’ve just been brushed under the surface. There is still a real wage gap between male and female reporters, and women have fewer opportunities to advance into leadership positions.
They also still worry about whether or not to have a family. While in theory it shouldn’t come down to the woman to take the lead in childcare, many of the journalists Smith studied still felt that they had to choose between having children and advancing in their careers.
After the talk, one student asked Smith what advice she has for young women. “Think about diversity all the time,” she answered. Think about how you can promote it within your newsroom, and also in your stories.
I have another piece of advice: keep having these conversations. Thanks, Vivian Smith, for giving us something to talk about.