With International Women’s Day on March 8, it’s important to celebrate the contributions female journalists have made to society.

From Nellie Bly to Ida B. Wells, Ann Leslie to Mary Nightingale, women have been key to exposing corruption, reporting on the world’s biggest stories, and fighting for justice in all its forms.

The Exception NOT the Rule

But female journalists are still a minority in newsrooms.

Globally, women represent around 36 per cent of reporters. And despite being a developed nation with a relatively gender-equal society, the UK is not exempt from this asymmetry.

The latest NCTJ Journalism Diversity Report reveals that there has been a 12 per cent drop in the number of female journalists in the UK since 2020.

A 2022 Labour Force Survey showed that only 41 per cent of respondents were women — the worst figure for journalism gender equality since the report began.

So how did this come to be? What sinister issues are behind this gradual decline in the number of female journalists in the UK?

Unconscious Bias Against Female Journalists

The majority of women in the British journalism industry today will not experience overt sexism, because media companies have no reason — or excuse — to treat their female employees any differently than their male counterparts.

However, there are still challenges for female journalists operating at a senior level.

Despite women making up half of all newly appointed top editors in the UK, there are still two male editors for every female one.

It has also been shown that male bosses are more likely to promote male employees over female ones, even if they have similar credentials. This suggests that being a news leader is still very much an ‘old boys club.’

This is because, subconsciously, we associate men with being more confident, and therefore more competent, according to Mary Ann Sieghart’s novel The Authority Gap, despite the two words having very different meanings.

As a result, female reporters may have a harder time pitching stories than their male colleagues, which ultimately means having fewer bylines to their name. While this may seem of little significance at first, when it comes to climbing the career ladder every little bit counts.

A lack of female journalists in senior positions is not just a symptom of gender inequality but subsequently a cause of it.

When fewer female journalists occupy positions of power, it can lead women to be underrepresented in the newsroom and dissuade a generation of younger women from training to become journalists.

Women’s Issues Are Underreported

In addition, male editors are less inclined to publish stories about women’s issues.

This is worrying because editors play a crucial role in all news organisations. They decide what material is published and therefore which journalists get their voices heard.

They also have a responsibility to ensure that the stories covered reflect the public in all its diversity. Arguably, men and women need to be ’equal partners in sourcing and interpreting what and who is important in the story.

But male editors are less likely to prioritise articles about women’s issues, regardless of whether they provide a light-hearted analysis of women’s fashion or discuss weightier topics like reproductive rights.

A great example of this was when journalist Ore Ogunbiyi pitched an article to The Economist about the science behind period products.

This was a topic she was very passionate about, so she was disappointed when the initial drafts of the story were turned down and the article was changed to cater to the Economist’s readership.

‘Everyone was a bit squeamish,’ Ore says of her editor’s reaction to the subject matter. ‘The first time it was edited, they changed the word “period” to “menses.”’ However, after much deliberation, the piece was eventually published in December 2022 and was a huge success. ’It was the most [positive] feedback I’d ever gotten for a story,’ Ore said.

Her editor’s initial response, however, demonstrates how female journalists often have to fight to get their voices heard on women’s issues. And this is arguably where the industry is shooting itself in the foot.

Women are less likely to join (and more likely to leave) an industry where they have a harder time publishing stories that are important to them, which further widens the gap between the number of male and female journalists.

Mothers Forced to Leave the Industry

Another potential reason for the decline in the number of female journalists in the UK is that women leave work to have children. But now fewer of them are returning to the industry.

Being a journalist is a demanding job. Becoming a working mother multiplies the challenges, with some women struggling to navigate their careers while raising another human being. Freelancing and working part-time may offer realistic solutions to many women. This matches the national trend that shows working mothers in England with younger children are more likely to be in part-time employment than full-time.

In response, the National Union of Journalists has condemned media companies for not providing a more ‘flexible’ and ‘equal’ working environment for female journalists who wish to have children. Some working mothers, according to the NUJ, have even been ‘forced to quit their staff jobs’ or ‘have left journalism altogether.

Annie Ridout, founder and editor of The Early Hour, chose to go freelance so she could spend more time with her children. But she is outraged that other mothers are being forced out of the industry.

‘[Women] can be pregnant, have a baby, return to work and be just as productive,’ she argues.

This is a sentiment that Julia Turner, editor of Slate, agrees with:

‘If you create a workplace where [women] see that having children means they’ll no longer have opportunities to do amazing work or to be promoted to take on leadership roles, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot,’ she says. ‘We need [their] brainpower, talent and ideas.’

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