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By Emily Arlidge for JAC

Before starting journalism studies, I assumed from conversations with my father that I knew what I was heading into. He began work as a journalist in the 1970s, when being a scribbler was predominantly a man’s trade. It never really occurred to me that gender could play a large part in my future career and I never thought to ask. I presumed that male and female journalists functioned more or less equally.

I had occasion to think about the issue during my first journalism assignment – logging my media consumption patterns. Journalism, it seemed, was not confined to politics, crime and finance. Clearly, social and entertainment media also played big roles. And while these “soft” areas were well represented – even dominated – by women, in the halls of politics and business, men seem firmly in control. A few women held top positions in the press galleries but not many. It struck me that this was something I was going to have to consider. Was I heading for a world where I would have to adapt at the risk of not succeeding?

Joe Saltzman, in an academic paper about the image of journalists in popular culture, addresses the issue. He contends that women can succeed but only if they are prepared to take on blokey qualities: “The female journalist faces an ongoing dilemma: How to incorporate the masculine traits of journalism essential for success – being aggressive, self-reliant, curious, tough, ambitious, cynical, cocky, unsympathetic – while still being the woman society would like her to be – compassionate, caring, loving, maternal, sympathetic.”

This rang alarms bells. I could understand the need to be tough to succeed but, would I really need a testosterone implant? How masculine was I expected to be? How much femininity could a girl retain without risking her career? In one of our texts, The Content Makers, Margaret Simons reinforced the fear. She recalls an incident in 2005 as the only woman in a group of journalists in a pub: “Now at the bar, without the public members and without women apart from me, the boys stand as mates, thumbs hooked into pants pockets.” I needed a third opinion.

Geraldine Doogue, one of the ABC’s senior reporters with a glittering career in radio and television, essentially agrees with Saltzman’s and Simons’ views. In a telephone interview, she told me that while she is delighted that women of all ages are now accepted in the industry, “unfortunately looking beautiful and feminine is still a key to survival.” She pointed out that for male journalists the opposite is true. “Senior men most certainly can survive looking bald: it even adds to their authority.”

Doogue notes that throughout her career she has time and again observed young women coming in to the industry and facing the same issue. “I really believe that the hard/soft news bifurcation is massively overdone. A broader news agenda would allow more younger women in.”

TEN News anchorwoman for 17 years, Marie-Louise Thiele has a different take. She began her career at The Daily Sun in Brisbane amongst future male frontrunners such as John Hartigan (now CEO of News Limited), Malcolm Farr (Daily Telegraph political journalist), and Des Houghton (one time editor of The Courier Mail). Thiele asserts that she has always been judged solely by her work, not her gender and she believes that this is generally true. “I think it’s a cliché,” she says. “It’s not easy to be a career woman and a mother but if you’re good enough, you’ll thrive. That’s the case in any field.” They are not there for their looks. “Many women reporters in Brisbane now are all in their late 30s, early 40s… even their 50s,” she says.

Doogue and Thiele believe the “use-by-date” that once plagued women is no more. Social forces in the industry have changed attitudes toward gender equity. Employers are legally obliged to treat women as equals and have employee policies that address gender issues.

Doogue hints that issues other than gender may be at play. Being successful in an industry run by deadlines requires practitioners to make quick decisions. “Younger women can fuss around a bit. I think you’ve got to be prepared to make a decision with conviction…. Girls and women have a very broad range of curiosity that is a real feminine strength but you have to be careful it doesn’t become a bit too catch-all.” She contends that whether you are male or female, your story still has to be harnessed to journalism’s pyramid writing style.

It seems to me that Doogue’s point is that women should not hide behind their gender. In researching this assignment, I was challenged by the prospect of telephoning Doogue and Thiele. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me make decisions. Did I have to become blokey or did I just do what I had to do to get the story? The latter, I think.

Saltzman describes how a woman in journalism typically progressed in the late 1800s. She could, he writes, gain recognition but she would rarely cover the big stories. Fame was short-lived and, when a woman ceased being young and fresh, she would usually quit the newsroom, get married and have children. In the field, they were not encouraged to be masculine, rather their success was based on their feminine qualities. Skills were apparently not a priority. Clearly things have changed a great deal. Now women can achieve high positions but rarely through their femininity. In fact, masculine qualities are favoured. Doogue wants what she refers to as “female sensibility” to be part of the news agenda but not at the expense of an individual’s personality.

The challenge for me, I suspect, will be the path I choose if and when I am called on to fit a stereotype. Doogue imparted useful advice: “Find your own voice, in the broad and narrow sense. The public conversational tone in Australia is still very masculine. When you can have the guts to find it you will do your best work.”

Finding my own voice seems a worthy aspiration. Who knows, perhaps the next Rupert Murdoch may even be a Sheila.

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