Style Page Ghetto

The career obstacles faced by women journalists.

In the early 1990s, after 14 years at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Vivian Smith moved with her husband to Victoria, where he opened the newspaper’s first bureau in the city. There was no job for her. Her bosses would not permit her to work part time during her husband’s five-year deployment as bureau chief because that would set an unthinkable precedent. Instead, the former national beats editor and feature writer stayed home, raising their two children and freelancing for one third of her former salary. She rationalized the loss of a challenging career and a national platform with the consolation that she now had flexibility and more family time. Eventually, like so many female journalists whose career trajectory has stalled, she taught journalism, coached writers and offered media training to professionals. But she could not stop asking herself what happens to the sociopolitical agenda when daily print journalism loses so many women’s voices.

The result is a fascinating look at the lives of 27 Canadian women at five newspapers from Halifax to Victoria—and the newsroom environments that, all too often, do not empower or even value them. Through emails and website searches, Smith selected journalists from all age groups, ranging from senior reporters and editors to those at mid career as well as younger entrants. Most of them worked in newsrooms where the majority of senior editors were white middle class males. As Smith notes in a historical overview, the days of overt sexism have vanished: In the early 20th century, for one, women journalists usually wrote about domestic concerns such as cleaning and cooking, which pleased advertisers because women were the main consumers of household goods. But, although much has changed for the better within the profession, the glass ceiling remains an often-unacknowledged reality. Through one-on-one interviews and focus groups, Smith teased out the narratives of her subjects’ frequently unexamined lives.

The different perspectives that emerged from the three age groups were intriguing reflections of the different waves of feminism. The senior women often attributed their longevity in competitive newsroom environments to luck: they were survivors in gendered worlds. The middle participants berated themselves for their inability to juggle the obligations of work and home. The younger group cared far less about gender bias than the need to find strategies to keep their jobs in a declining industry. Most of them had figured out how to negotiate the existing power structures in the newsroom. But many did not see the embedded discriminatory practices—the assumption that employees should adjust their lives as mothers to fit their work environment, the enduring preference for males for key positions—until Smith’s questions elicited that recognition. Such narrow qualitative analysis of women’s lived experience is a legitimate feminist approach—and it fills a critical niche in the growing body of communications and media studies, which Smith extensively surveys. It is unfortunate, however, that her decision to select newspapers of roughly similar circulation size excluded the Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal markets.

Smith devotes individual segments to her disparate subjects, who include a Halifax woman of colour and a white Winnipeg woman with indigenous status. As she recounts their ethnic and educational backgrounds and their career paths, her insight into the dichotomy of their lives is particularly valuable. Most of her subjects accepted their status within the newsroom hierarchy. In their daily journalistic lives, however, they often challenged the status quo: a Winnipeg Free Press writer routinely tackled fetal alcohol disorders and urban poverty; a Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter was nominated for a National Newspaper Award for a report on a provincial cross-burning incident. But, within the newspaper, many women did not even question the way that their system worked.

As French philosopher Michel Foucault observed, power relies for its continuance on discursive networks. And Smith’s subjects almost unconsciously adopted the discourse that supported the existing power networks within their newsrooms. They complied with the culture that forced them to figure out how to juggle pregnancy and family obligations with their work. They did not question their more limited prospects of advancement. They rarely challenged their employers’ decisions about what constituted news or what stories were more appropriate for women. Such disconnects unsettled Smith, who received her doctorate in interdisciplinary studies in 2013: “They see themselves as having to fit into the structure, as opposed to having the power to change it.”

Why does this matter? Don’t most Canadians implicitly accept the gender-biased assumptions on which their workplace hierarchy operates? Although cultures are changing slowly from within, the hegemony of white middle class males still permeates most areas of society. But journalism matters more than other professions—because journalists “guard an authoritative discourse with the power to convince and manipulate.” They determine the Canadian narratives. Smith notes that studies reveal no straight line between gender and news content. But she speculates that gender interacting with other variables such as race and motherhood over time affects not only women’s careers but also the content of their work. The definition and production of news are likely skewed when “mostly male journalists [are] providing much of this input into how citizens perceive themselves and the world around them.” Her evidence is convincing but scanty. One senior Halifax editor spoke about her struggle to promote stories that her managers dismissed. “We all eat food,” she told Smith. “But is food a women’s issue? Well, it’s not. What’s happening to your kids’ school, is that a women’s issue. No, it’s not.” The book could use more examples of male resistance to so-called female content.

Smith can occasionally be a heavy-handed presence, pulling out themes in academic prose that her subjects themselves do not understand. But these can be valuable observations, largely because her subjects are often too harassed to take a broader look at their careers. After the style editor at the Hamilton Spectator talked about the old boys’ network, Smith observes that she was “articulating the notion that journalism operates in lockstep with society … rather than considering how journalism might actually reinforce societal norms, including assumptions about women being primarily interested in stories about the home.” When a mid-career woman talked about her journalistic epiphany while pursuing academic history studies, Smith points out that narrative analysts see this use of a real-life turning point “as a storytelling tool to self-revise.” The author can appear so much smarter than her subjects.

Those subjects were simply doing their best to survive. By the time Smith finished the manuscript, more than one quarter of them had either quit their jobs or taken a buyout. (She interviewed six of them again after they left.) In the end, Smith prescribes a handful of sadly familiar solutions to improve women’s experience in journalism: better support from male partners and better child care, stronger efforts to take control of their narratives and tackle their newsroom culture. But change remains slow. When she started her interviews, Smith was intrigued to see that the Calgary Herald provided a daycare centre for its employees. In April 2014, the centre closed. That ironic denouement underscores the need for this fine probe.