Women in the newsroom
20 July 2014
Three female journalists share their experiences of working in India’s broadcast news media and the ‘glass ceilings’ they have encountered.
Wherever you are in the world, from New York to New Delhi, typical newsrooms are constantly abuzz. There is chatter, phone calls and people reading hastily-written copy aloud. In the English-language broadcast news space, in Delhi at least, those voices are often female. Studios, meanwhile, are silent except for the anchor’s audio (the anchor’s ear is frequently buzzing!), and while you’ll often see ‘single-anchor shows’, the universal model for news broadcasts seems to be of the traditional dual-anchor, male-female type. Reassuringly, when it comes to gender equality, balance is built into the system.
Where I work, at CNN-IBN, the odds of being recognised as ‘on-air talent’ seem tipped in favour of women. (What that has to say about the men hiring I will leave for you to judge.) So much so, that when it comes to daytime news broadcasts, one can frequently see two women anchor together. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen two men anchor together in the past nine years. Make of that what you will.
While there is a difference between daytime and primetime, and may sometimes be a perception of who should do the ‘softer’ news stories versus breaking the ‘hard news’ pieces, problems of gender inequality are not really seen in newsrooms and studios – the gender balance, at least in the English-language broadcast news space in India, seems to be on par with the best in the world. Rather, the largest disparities lie within the boardroom. As Managing Editor of CNBC-TV18 Shereen Bhan tells me, “It’s different as far as the newsroom is concerned, and as far as the boardroom is concerned. We’ve seen the track record is much better in the newsroom, we still have a lot of room to grow in terms of the boardroom.”
That’s something to think about. Bhan does, however, sound a positive note when it comes to the number of women in editorial roles in English-language news media in India: “I think [this is] because it’s a new-age sector – the industry is only about 20 or 22 years old… If you see journalism schools, most of the graduates are women, and they are the ones being picked up on campus. So if you look at our newsroom, the majority of trainees are women. I think it starts petering out at the higher levels, so whether it’s in the boardroom or senior executive positions etc, that’s where you see more men.”
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CNN-IBN news anchor and Senior Editor Anubha Bhonsle concurs, referring to the ‘nature of the medium’ and the many women who are working as reporters, anchors or producers, as evidence. Nonetheless, she states, “The progress that women have made as important voices in this industry notwithstanding, it’s men who still hold major leadership positions, women in the media workforce still by and large remain foot soldiers, with management and top rung editorial positions being dominated by men. These remain two realms of reality.”
Bhan articulates the difference: “In the newsroom, I’ve never faced an issue as far as gender equality is concerned. It’s in the decision-making space you start to feel the gender gap… I didn’t experience a gap until I got to a decision-making position.”
Typecasting is alive and well in the English-language Indian news media. As Bhonsle asserts, “One of the greatest challenges facing journalists – both men and women – is to resist the culture of casual stereotyping in our everyday work…Women for women’s issues, men for aggressive hardcore debates.”
Sadly, this isn’t the only stereotype women face. Women worldwide encounter a similar battle when it comes to standing up for themselves, competing for leadership positions, or fighting to be paid on par with men (a fight many shy away from, including this writer). Bhan says she’s only just started ‘leaning in’. Though one of India’s best-known business-focused TV journalists, Bhan remarks, “I feel uncomfortable asking for what I should rightfully get… You feel grabby almost. You steer away from that conversation. You don’t want to come across as demanding.” As discussed in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, when it comes to pay or demanding equal treatment, women are more often than not labelled and stereotyped as aggressive or bossy, and thus, perhaps understandably, shy away from those conversations.
Bhan continues, “A lot of it is the way we’re brought up, the cultural subtext we’ve absorbed… Only over the last two years, I’ve made a little bit of an effort to start self-correcting… Women have to stand up and be counted. You have to be clear about what you want.” Most of India’s leading women journalists, however, don’t perceive gender as a problem when it comes to reporting. But serious problems continue to exist: safety, for example, often becomes an issue. Delhi has one of the worst reputations for women’s safety, and while organisations don’t necessarily have explicit policies, it’s understood when there are ‘office drops’ at night, if a woman is being driven home and is the final passenger on the route, there will be a security guard along with the driver.
Noopur Tiwari, NDTV’s resident editor in Europe, finds the difference between her work environments quite stark. “As a woman, I am not gawked at on the streets in Europe. When I went to villages in Bihar for a shoot, I had to make sure I was dressed in a salwar kameez with a duppatta. In Delhi, the men in the street will always remind you that they consider you little more than sex objects. I have travelled from Slovakia to Portugal and from Norway to Italy without having to worry about any of that.”
Blatant sexism and misogyny is something India is still struggling to come to terms with, and perhaps now only articulating in a coherent, collective manner. But the good news is that working women don’t necessarily face discrimination in the field. Tiwari says, “Both in India, as well as in Europe, I’ve never felt that the people I’ve interviewed have questioned my professionalism because I am a woman. I guess when you wield a mic or have a camera hovering over them, most people feel slightly in awe. I have to admit that makes you feel secure.”
I myself have often felt safer having a TV news crew – a cameraman, sometimes an assistant – tagging along, but have also felt that there are issues – like in any field – with some of the men we encounter, both inside and outside our offices. Sexism isn’t going away overnight.
I ask Anubha Bhonsle to compare her present employer, CNN-IBN, to her previous employer, NDTV, which has a reputation of being ‘women-friendly’. Bhonsle says: “Having worked in both organisations, I would say gender parity, safety and wellbeing of women employees comes perhaps a little more organically to NDTV. That may well be because the channel has had a longer run compared to CNN-IBN and the processes are far more entrenched. Having said that, I sometimes thought my previous employer was leaning towards women, perhaps at the cost of men, but of course why would I complain about that? The presence of women in top positions as part of editorial and directorial boards did sort of lend NDTV the tag of being a far more female-friendly employer, though I have personally never had a reason to complain at CNN-IBN.”
While both Bhonsle and Bhan talk about gender inequality in the English-language media, when compared to the regional Hindi-language news media, Bhonsle highlights a “tremendous” difference. “We are in a cocoon,” she tells me. “I have had a stint at a Hindi channel and my impression was perhaps a little naïve at that time, since I [had] only [just] entered the work force… But attitudes of patriarchy and dominance were reinforced very often. I hardly found an environment where women were encouraged to sit at the table, take risks or pursue their careers with gusto. The ones who were doing [it] were doing it in spite of the system. The stereotypes were reinforced in many conversations that I was privy to.”
She goes on to say, “I think women journalists in the state-run regional setups, however few they may be, are fighting many more brave battles than we can imagine – at home, in the neighbourhood, at work and among the people they report on.”
A universal problem
There’s no question that the English-language news business in India draws from and caters to a tiny elite. That is well worth contemplating when considering how far women have yet to go. But even in media houses in the West, gender disparities remain. While Bhan tells me that corporate America is a terrible model for gender equality and that Scandinavia is the benchmark, Tiwari’s experience in Europe belies the perception that gender inequality in the media is an issue exclusive to India. Tiwari explains, “More women are studying journalism and getting jobs in the media in Europe but the organisational structure still remains masculine. The European Institute for Gender Equality found out that in the 27 EU nations, in the public media sector women occupy only 22 percent of the strategic positions whereas in private media it’s just 12 percent.”
Tiwari continues: “But I strongly feel that the milieu I belong to in India, is far more inclined to accept women claiming more space and exercising more authority than, for example, in France, where asserting yourself as a woman entitled to equal rights or as a woman directing men could land you tagged as a ‘troublemaker’.”
These are veteran journalists, each with more than a decade and a half of work experience. Though they have seen women come a long way, they remain pragmatic about the future. Tiwari says that there have been positive developments ever since she joined NDTV in 1996. “News channels have played a huge role and a constructive one in bringing violence against women in India to the fore. I’d imagine had it not been for the strong women editors and anchors in news channels, this would have been more difficult. But there’s still no concerted effort to stop making gender balance about niche ‘gender issues’ in stories that come up occasionally. Even women journalists feel the pressure to remain ‘neutral’. There’s no neutrality in the world. Women are the hardest hit in all situations of conflict, be it communal violence or natural disaster.”
Given this truth, and the many issues raised by these three intrepid women journalists, it’s clear that further battles must be fought to advance the cause of equality in the Indian media. Not only will this benefit female journalists (and women in general), it will also contribute to a more gender-friendly media environment.
~This article is a part of ‘Growing media, shrinking spaces’ web-exclusive package.
~Amrita Tripathi is a New Delhi-based broadcast journalist and novelist. Her second book The Sibius Knot will be published by HarperCollins India in December. Feedback is welcome @amritat.