Gender and journalism became a popular area of study in the mid-1990s when gender in media studies gained recognition as a powerful variable defining feminine and masculine roles and behavior and structuring everyday life and work. Earlier feminist media studies had paid attention to women in journalism and their peculiar position in a male-dominated professional world with strong preconceptions about women journalists (Van Zoonen 1994). The growing realization that culturally determined gender role expectations exert influence led to the conceptual shift that added a gender perspective to journalism studies. Despite being common for years in gender studies, this perspective had not fully entered some fields such as media studies or organizational studies.
In media studies this insight begins from the premise that gender notions color what journalists consider appropriate professional behavior for women and for men. Such notions may structure power relations in media work, influence the division of labor, determine access to promotion and status in media organizations, and affect journalists’ interaction and communication with sources, colleagues, and supervisors.
Earlier accounts of women in the media were autobiographies of female pioneers, who related their survival strategies in an overwhelmingly male world. In the late 1970s and early 1980s other reflections on women in journalism began to appear, referring as well to alternative media. Several women initially excluded from journalism, who later gained acceptance on condition of surrendering to male newsroom norms, were motivated to develop their own media.
In the 1970s, scholarly journals began to pay more attention to the position and occupation roles of women in media hierarchies. The 1975 Mexico Conference for the first UN Decade for Women helped set the research agenda in three areas: women’s underrepresentation in the news, trivialization and sex-role stereotyping in content, and women’s underrepresentation in decision-making positions. The driving force behind these priorities was the belief that a greater presence of women in the media would influence the media agenda, which, in turn, would stimulate the inclusion of more women’s issues in public debate.
Studies during the 1970s and 1980s began to compare women’s and men’s tasks and responsibilities in media organizations, trying to identify possible differences in their performance. Did male and female gatekeepers respond differently to news stories about women? Did women’s or lifestyle page editors turn out different final products? Did men and women show differences in job satisfaction? Did they have different goals and achievement orientations? Did female television news anchors perceive any career barriers? There was even a replication, 40 years later, of White’s (1950) classic on gatekeeping, referring this time to Ms. Gates.
Studies on gender in the early 1990s were mostly descriptive research on media, rather than on journalism. Initial research on gender patterns in media employment concentrated on descriptive accounts of male and female presence in organizations, with numbers and percentages dominating the discussions (Creedon 1993; Gallagher & Quindoza-Santiago 1994; Gallagher 1995). These studies painted an overall picture showing that in the media workforce of many countries women formed a minority, occupying a small fraction of middle management, especially in news organizations, and an even smaller fraction in senior management. This serious underrepresentation still exists, although some countries have made slight changes for the better. US women journalists gained managerial responsibility and influence during the 1980s, especially in weekly newspapers and magazines (Weaver & Wilhoit 1996). On the other hand, a lower percentage of women than of men have a great deal of influence where power really matters: in hiring and firing.
In the late 1990s several authors attempted to correlate women’s presence in media organizations with qualities of content, as some research topics of the period reflect. Did female writers choose particular topics for stories? Did they have different priorities? Did the greater presence of women’s writing on some front pages have anything to do with what appeared to be a wider range of stories of special interest to women? The assumption that a greater presence of women in the media workforce would lead to changes in their portrayal seemed to oversimplify the relationship between producers and content. It ignored the influence of the culture of the work environment – the media organization – on content as well as on content producers.
Most studies up to the late 1990s took the working environment of journalists as a gender-neutral condition; they conceptualized gender mainly as a fixed attribute within media organizations, and not so much as a relational quality within the organization. Until the mid to late 1990s, authors noted a lack of systematic research on gender and media organizations, or gender and journalism, although organizational studies in general suffered from the same deficit.
In the late 1990s, organizational studies developed a more sophisticated approach by breaking away from the idea of organizations as gender-neutral entities and by recognizing that the behavior of employees is the outcome of much more complex processes involving interaction and practices. Gender is only one of the major determinants.
Current Research Foci
Recent debates on gender and journalism also reflect this new approach, with less emphasis on counting bodies and describing employment patterns and more on gendered substructures shaping processes. To study gender and professionalism as variables in media production, the catchphrases became “gender orientation in journalism” or “gendered professionalism.” “Newsroom culture” and “journalistic culture,” and more specifically, “gendered professional practices in the newsroom,” finally became a center of attention.
Professional values and newsroom practices, as part of newsroom culture, were seen to have an unavoidable gender bias, given the preponderance of male decision-makers. Studies began to identify gendered substructures, such as topic selection, in which male priorities set the media agenda, or division of work in the allocation of beats, because in many countries, sports, crime, or war are still topics that only men cover. Gender also influences the treatment of stories from particular angles and styles: women take up human interest features and men dig into hard news. News discourse, as part of newsroom culture, shows the selective privileging of masculine over feminine ways of knowing, preferring logic over emotion, or science over intuition (Kitzinger 1998).
Some gendered substructures are difficult to recognize in daily life; they have become part of the social fabric in newsrooms and are the norm – that’s-how-we-do-it-here. Studies show that female journalists can make contradictory statements, indicating that gender has not been important in their careers but at the same time has had a negative impact on salary and on career opportunities, such as running into the glass ceiling. Sexual harassment in newsrooms, and sometimes from sources, continues for many female journalists.
The increasing personalization of news, sexualization of news presentation, growing emphasis on infotainment, and tabloidization of media, some say, have offered women more job opportunities. Others blame market-led feminism for promoting a materialistic version of femininity and feminizing news.
Perceptions by journalists of the core values and roles in their profession differ considerably worldwide, and sometimes even within one region, country, or media organization. It may therefore be misleading to speak about gender and journalism as if journalism represents one set of orientations. A professional identity depends on individual, social, cultural, and economic factors. Looking at journalism through a gender lens magnifies the influence of cultural and economic conditions even more, because gender itself is a culturally specific social construction.
Studying a range of realities, through country or region studies, for instance, is important for understanding gender and journalism, but also exceptional (Gallagher 1995; Weaver 1998; De Bruin & Ross 2004; Chambers et al. 2004). Most research, however, has shown a bias toward resource-rich, first-world countries, with a serious underrepresentation of regions outside of Europe and North America.
Comparing the national and international studies is often difficult, not only because of the geographical imbalance, but because studies lack a common framework: some researchers focus on women’s overall share of media jobs and look at entire media organizations, but others limit themselves to news departments.
In recent debates about gender and journalism, three concepts figure prominently: professionalism, media organization, and gender. Debates use the terms professional and organizational inconsistently. Sometimes organizational refers to the newsroom but at other times to the whole media organization, and the two settings appear interchangeably. Searching for a conceptual framework, authors have now turned to another concept: social identity. Identity offers a way to capture and explore the dynamics among gender identity, professional identity, and organizational identity.
- Carter, C., Branston, G., & Allan, S. (eds.) (1998). News, gender and power. London: Routledge.
- Chambers, D., Steiner, L., & Fleming, C. (2004). Women and journalism. London: Routledge.
- Creedon, P. (ed.) (1993). Women in mass communication, 2nd edn. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- De Bruin, M. (2000). Gender, organizational and professional identities in journalism. Journalism, Theory, Practice and Criticism, 1(2), 217–238.
- De Bruin, M., & Ross, K. (eds.) (2004). Gender and newsroom cultures, identities at work. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Gallagher, M., with von Euler, My (1995). An unfinished story: Gender patterns in media employment. Reports and papers on mass communication, 110. Paris: UNESCO.
- Gallagher, M., & Quindoza-Santiago, L. (eds.) (1994). Women empowering communication: A resource book on women and the globalisation of media. London: WACC; Manila: Isis International; New York: Methuen.
- Kitzinger, J. (1998). The gender-politics of news production: Silenced voices and false memories. In C. Carter, G. Branston, & S. Allan (eds.), News, gender and power. London: Routledge, pp. 186 –203.
- Van Zoonen, L. (1994). Feminist media studies. London: Sage.
- Van Zoonen, L. (1998). A professional, unreliable, heroic marionette (M/F): Structure, agency and subjectivity in contemporary journalism. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1(1), 123 –143.
- Weaver, D. H. (ed.) (1998). The global journalist: News people around the world. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Weaver, D. H., & Wilhoit, G. C. (1996). The American journalist in the 1990s: US news people at the end of an era. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- White, D. M. (1950). “The gatekeeper”: A case study in the selection of news. Journalism Quarterly, 27 (Fall), 383 –390.