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Women in Journalism - a new kind of glass ceiling? (30th Anniversary)

Laura Saarikoski, Editor, Helsingin Sanomat Sunday , Monique Villa, CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday 7 September 2013
Prestwich Room, St. John’s College
This panel discussion took place at the Prestwich Room in St. John's College on the afternoon of Saturday 7th September, 2013 as part of the RISJ fellowship's 30th anniversary celebration. The main question explored by the panelists was the role of women as journalists . The session was chaired by Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Gayatri Sapru writes: What is the role of women in Journalism? There is no easy answer because women have contributed and continue to contribute to the profession in so many ways and yet do not seem to get their due. They often have to contend with being props to their male counterparts, at times receiving lower salaries and being forced to suffer significantly earlier retirement ages than in most other professions.  The panelists Suzanne Franks, Sue Lloyd Roberts and Laura Saarikoski explored the common and deep rooted problems of women journalists who work in various organisations and countries with a special focus on Suzanne Franks new book 'Women in Journalism', which was written specifically for the RISJ this year. The major themes explored by the panelists were the reasons why women journalists are not seen heading big newsmedia companies and what to do about it. Suzanne Franks, Professor of Journalism at London City University's Department of Journalism talked about the fascinating insights she gained while compiling her book 'Women in Journalism'. Her research highlighted some unexpected facts: more women than men enter journalism schools today, yet less than 1% of the top level employees in news media are women; women journalists are prominent in their twenties but the phenomenon of 'the lady vanishes at 45' continues, as women in their mid-forties and older disappear from the journalistic arena due to fierce ageism in the profession, particularly on television. Laura Saarikoski, a Finnish journalist working as an editor for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and a journalist fellow at the Institute last year, discussed the practicalities of being a journalist as well as a mother and wife. Her advice to female journalists is to forgo perfection in the domestic sphere in order to excel professionally.  She contrasted the differences between the UK and Finland in terms of maternity and paternity leave as well as the cost of nursery or crèche support. Laura agreed how hard it is for women to come back after a break in their professional careers because the competition is too intense and the support too meagre. Sue Lloyd Roberts CBE, a special correspondent for the BBC, talked about breaking through the age-barrier to continue as a journalist on TV into her sixties. She explained how she re-invented her journalistic persona, becoming a reporter in warzones by utilizing the invention of Sony's handicam (often as a hidden camera)  which enabled her as a lone woman to access areas where a three-man camera crew were unable to go. She has gained worldwide acclaim as a woman reporting in war and conflict zones, and she stressed the importance of using the qualities seen as weaknesses of women to her advantage; often she feigned innocence or pretended to be lost when she was caught filming in a location she should not have been at. She also got access to places were most male journalists simply were not allowed because the authorities could not imagine a woman being a threat. She recalled the sexism in journalism and remembered how editors said women could not announce important news because they felt viewers would not accept it as truth from the mouth of a woman. Monique Villa added that since the 60's and 70's much has changed and it has become more acceptable for older women to hold high positions and that the sexism seems to be reducing gradually. Yet, Suzanne Franks pointed out that the progress has been much slower than expected because the attitudes towards women have not changed. She said that women are often confined to vpink ghettos' in journalism and only assigned reporting of events that are not serious or consequential and although exceptions such as Sue Lloyd Roberts exist, they are certainly not the norm. Sue Lloyd Roberts and Suzanne Franks noted that women journalists bring a new way of telling a story; they engage with their informants and relate to people in an entirely different way than their male colleagues and this has been one of the key reasons that women journalists are successful. On a lighter note, Laura Saarikoski's response to that perennial question how can women have it all? was 'they must marry a feminist and employ a wife'. The other panelists agreed that women cannot hope to be domestic goddesses and cutting edge journalists. Finally, Monique Villa brought up the question of what the future holds for women in journalism.  The consensus of all panelists was that a change in employers attitudes was vital and that 'if women are given flexibility to manage home and office roles, they will excel'. Sue Lloyd Roberts and Monique Villa agreed that things definitely seemed to be improving for women journalists overall though Suzanne Franks confessed she did not expect much to change soon.

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