Selangor Journal
Media practitioners beginning the coverage of the 15th general election results at the Grand Dorsett Hotel, Subang Jaya, on November 19, 2022. — Picture by AHMAD ZAKKI JILAN/SELANGORKINI

Women still underrepresented in senior editorial roles in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, April 27 — A new report has found that women still feel excluded from having power in the news media industry globally.

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report 2023, only 22 percent of the 180 top editors at 240 news organisations worldwide are women despite the fact that on average, 40 percent of journalists in the 12 markets surveyed are women.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, the lack of women in senior editorial positions has resulted in a “toxic and self-perpetuating cycle in which there are few mentors in newsrooms for future female leaders”, according to a 2020 media report by the National Union of Journalists and International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific Region.

The above report was based on the findings of a survey of 240 Malaysian media personnel and it gauged their respective working conditions ranging from wage concerns and safety issues to overall job security.

The report found that while women were well represented in executive and management roles such as chief executive officer, executive and general manager, they were however less well represented in senior editorial roles such director, bureau chief and editor.

According to the survey, 83.3 percent of the respondents said their organisations had women in high-ranking roles but the proportion of women in top editorial positions was lower than men.

The report said such underrepresentation of women in key editorial roles in the media industry also led to under-reporting of issues pertaining to women’s rights and gender equity.

Independent broadcast journalist Tehmina Kaoosji, who is based in Malaysia, pointed out that gender diversity in editorial positions has increased “slightly” over the last decade.

“While there is a fair representation of women in such positions, they often replicate parochial models of leadership. If these leaders are younger women, then there tends to be improved awareness and commitment towards gender mainstreaming principles in news coverage,” she told Bernama recently.

Changes in newsrooms

Galen Centre’s health portal CodeBlue editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn said female media professionals still have a long way to go before greater gender equality becomes more visible in top editorial positions.

“The same goes for other fields as well. Women are often seen as having more family commitments than men, and they may not be willing to spend more time on their careers which prevents them from being given opportunities to climb the ladder.

“Another challenge is that many newsrooms are still being led by older men and vacancies are only created when they retire or resign. This leaves little opportunity for younger female journalists to shine and take on leadership positions,” Boo said.

Tehmina said mentoring and leadership programmes for women in newsrooms are essential in order to ensure capable and talented female journalists are not overlooked for promotions due to conscious and unconscious bias.

“Newsrooms can begin addressing this by ensuring that female journalists who are mothers have adequate access to subsidised and affordable childcare. Both male and female journalists who are parents must be allowed to work flexible hours so they can pitch in equally to undertake childcare duties,” she said.

Tehmina also said Malaysian newsrooms should have more gender-sensitised copy editors to ensure the daily news cycle “does not perpetuate sexist stereotypes” and uses gender-neutral language and also covers the general news cycle with gender mainstreaming as a guiding principle.

“They also should provide regular training and awareness workshops for all levels of employees, including C-suite (executive-level managers), with organisational and management KPIs (key performance indicators) to track the progress for a non-discriminatory workplace in the newsroom and also fair, ethical, gender-sensitised news,” she added.

Women’s voices underrepresented

A 2020 report titled “The Missing Perspectives of Women in News”, which was commissioned by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that women’s voices continue to be underrepresented in the global news media.

It said more than 70 percent of people seen, quoted and heard in the news are men while women make up less than 30 percent.

Boo said one of the reasons women are underrepresented in senior editorial positions is the fact that men remain the vast majority of experts and sources quoted by the media.

“The newsmakers (sources) are mostly male such as the politicians and lawmakers quoted in political reports. This means the news reports tend to be male-centric, which results in an overrepresentation of men in the media,” she said.

Boo said as a female editor-in-chief of a healthcare portal, she always makes sure that women experts and sources are included in each news article.

“Women are more health conscious and their concerns should be highlighted in order to attract more female readers,” she said.

She said if women are given the opportunity to lead editorial positions, specific issues relating to gender equality, children and vulnerable communities can be easily highlighted.

“This is because women are perceived as a group that understands and empathises more and only they can highlight these issues in the media,” she added.

Safety of women journalists

Despite the challenges of the profession, quite a few Malaysian women journalists have risen through the ranks, one of them being Salbiah Said, 70, former deputy editor-in-chief of Economic Service at the Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama).

According to this veteran journalist, the early female journalists of this nation demonstrated that women can be as competent as their male counterparts in the field of journalism.

“During my era, circa the 1980s, there used to be many female news reporters but there were considerably more women working as reporters than as top editors.

“However, the situation has seen some positive changes today, with a good number of women holding key positions as editors. Today we tend to see women journalists moving up even against all odds,” she said.

Salbiah said in Bernama, thanks to its forward-looking management, many women journalists have moved up the career ladder to hold key positions in the organisation’s editorial department.

She also said during her days as a young reporter, she used to be given assignments that were primarily dominated by her male colleagues.

“When I was a reporter at the Penang bureau, among my most memorable assignments were covering Malaysia’s military involvement at the Malaysia-Thai border and there were occasions when I was personally invited by the then top-ranking army official based in Penang to some of the danger zones.

“I also went to Aceh, Indonesia, in December 2004 to cover the aftermath of the tsunami,” said Salbiah, who served Bernama for 32 years before her retirement on March 1, 2011.

Salbiah said in terms of safety, globally women journalists are facing increasing offline and online attacks and are subject to disproportional and specific threats, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

She said the gender-based violence they are exposed to implies stigmatisation, sexist hate speech, trolling, physical assault, rape and even murder.

“Sexual harassment, however, has not been traditionally viewed as gender-based violence, but was (and still is) prevalent in the industry. Sadly, most of these incidents were left unreported.

“As a journalist, one has to be daring, bold, tenacious, curious and even passionate. I have experienced the worst, but Alhamdulillah, I managed to overcome the episode and emerged stronger,” she said.

Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah Naidu said they have put together a set of guidelines to tackle the issue of gender equality in media organisations as well as the safety of women journalists.

“As the work of journalists is at most times out on the field, occupational health and safety practices may be undermined at times.

“Women journalists have had to wade through numerous physical, mental and digital safety concerns like dealing with harassment, sexual advances and online gender-based violence while on the job,” she told Bernama in an email interview.

She said CIJ has urged all media organisations in Malaysia to pay attention to the concerns of their female employees and ensure adequate standards and protection are put in place for them.

Hawana 2023

Meanwhile, this year’s National Journalists Day (Hawana) celebrations will take place from May 27 to 29 in Ipoh, Perak. Hawana is observed every year to recognise the contributions of journalists to the country.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is expected to officiate Hawana 2023 on the last day of the celebrations.

Infrastructure University Kuala Lumpur Faculty of Arts, Communication and Education executive dean Prof Dr Faridah Ibrahim said Hawana 2023 is the best platform to highlight the achievements of women journalists and educate others about this “oft-forgotten part of the national journalism history”.

“It is time for someone, perhaps from among scholars, university researchers or media practitioners themselves, to come up with a book on notable women journalists,” she said.

— Bernama

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