Female journalists fight gender discrimination

Throughout the world, including Lebanon, women in the media battle unequal pay, an unwillingness to be sent to conflict zones and the challenges of motherhood.

al-monitor Lebanese journalists Denise Rahme Fakhri (L) and Diamant Geagea speak during a news conference after their layoff from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) in Beirut, Oct. 15, 2009. Photo by AFP/GETTY IMAGES/Joseph Barrak.

Topics covered

women in the workforce, women in society, women's issues, women, lebanon, journalists, journalism, gender discrimination

Jan 2, 2015

Journalism in Lebanon has witnessed a number of changes. Chief among these is the extent of women’s fingerprints on the “products” of the profession. Reports examining this issue no longer focus on the emergence of women journalists, as this first occurred a hundred years ago. What is currently being highlighted, however, is women’s widespread presence in the profession and its institutions, which only began almost two decades ago. Let us explore this in the context of globalization.

Thanks to new technological tools, the dominance of men in the media industry has diminished. This improving environment for female journalists has been aided by shifting social and economic conditions that support these tools. Although serious research about the “share” of women in the press today is yet to emerge, this should not prevent those in the industry listening to the voices of experienced women journalists.

Professionalism in journalism begins when students choose to major in the subject. However, the quality of female journalists is not guaranteed simply by the large number of media faculties. “Concerning the curriculum, I think that journalism, as a major in Lebanon, is not of benefit to journalists, be they men or women, as this major lacks modernization, development and practice. It needs to satisfy the real needs of the labor market,” said journalist Sanaa al-Khouri.

According to news reports on international studies, there is a so-called “feminization of professions,” a concept that is clearly condemned by female journalists. “As for women’s role in journalism, I personally prefer not to use the term feminization, as it involves an implicit reverse discrimination. Talking about feminization or masculinization takes us away from the essence of the crisis, which is efficiency, not gender,” Khouri added.

There are different opinions about the impact of “gender identity” on the position of women within the press. Journalist Sabah Ayoub said, “Based on my experience, and based on the press reality, a large number of journalists are working in political sections of newspapers and play a primary role in suggesting political stories, conducting interviews with politicians, writing hard-hitting stories and opinion pieces.”

However, Khouri believed that “there is [intentional and unintentional] female exclusion from decision-making centers at Arab media outlets, as it is rare to find female heads of departments, editors-in-chief or heads of boards of directors, with the exception of art and fashion magazines.”

Bisan al-Sheikh echoed this view. “Yes, there is a preference for men over women, with the assumption that men are better, but this very often proves to be completely wrong,” she said.

Female journalists contribute to the formation of public opinions and social consciousness. They are no longer limited to a particular area. Female journalists, Ayoub said, “are now carrying out the same tasks as male journalists, and vice versa. For example, years ago, working in the local politics department or covering sensitive political events and wars was the preserve of male journalists. Today, however, we see many women carrying out these roles alongside male colleagues. Conversely, what was the preserve of women [cooking, fashion and arts sections, for example] is now most often run by men.”

But the motives behind this distinction require that “we move away a little from the feminist approach,” Nissan Sheikh said. “Such distinction seems justified in very precise and exceptional cases as this profession is quite dangerous, especially when it comes to events related to armed and terrorist groups, etc. Editorial managers, be they men or women, prefer to send a male reporter, unless a women volunteers for this task. In addition, these same groups do not usually welcome female reporters unless they trust them. This, in itself, requires time, effort and connections that not all journalists can afford.”

Professionalism in journalism requires experience and depends on the social mindset regardless of gender identity, according to Ayoub. “Abroad, journalists try to impose a margin of respect in how others deal with them. After all, the press is linked to the work of male and female journalists, how they deal with others and the professionalism through which they convey the picture or the minutes of an interview. However, and particularly in Lebanon, another factor that may affect how both male and female journalists are treated is the identity of the institution they work for and the extent to which they converge with the region’s policy or sect, or the personality in question,” she said.

The self-confidence of female journalists in their level of professionalism is affected by the problem of equality at work. Khouri said, “The current professional experiences give greater opportunities for men at the expense of women, both in terms of pay and promotions. Yet still, there are female correspondents, journalists, anchors or photographers, who have proved their skills and covered wars and conflicts.”

This problem extends into the press institutions “because equality in work is only possible once female journalists strive to prove their reporting skills and force the institution and colleagues together,” Sheikh lamented, especially “at the beginning of their professional career, as they have to face daily battles to get equal opportunities in the field and convince those who are directly in charge that they are capable of accomplishing the task, which [the bosses] may prefer to assign to a male colleague. That leads to an additional challenge whereby the work of women journalists has to have added value in order to justify their choice, or to be given that opportunity.”

However, Sheikh said, “The positive side is that when a female journalist succeeds in overcoming this rivalry, she becomes largely dedicated, which gives her a moral and professional power over her colleagues or the management.”

Khouri said, “Many female journalists and reporters working in Lebanon, the Arab world and for international media outlets have graduated from Lebanese universities.” But the image of women in the media is still marred by discrimination as “most of our media outlets continue to stick to their masculine formulations as they merchandise the female body, deal with women as only minor readers and focus just on women [in stories] about happy married life, cooking, and horoscopes.”

Discrimination against women is a global phenomenon, and it applies to journalists in Lebanon. Sheikh said, “There is no equality in pay, not only between female and male journalists, but also between two male colleagues or two female colleagues who have similar experiences and certificates. Salaries and career advancement are subject to considerations that are not necessarily linked to efficiency.”

Ayoub said, “I have never received any special treatment from the people I have interviewed just for being a woman.” However, she highlighted the important problem facing women in journalism who move from being childless to motherhood. Sheikh said, “There is an assumption that a single female journalist does not have a personal life and that her time can be exploited for business purposes. There is no doubt that a single journalist is not the same as journalist who is also juggling motherhood, who bears the burden of maintaining the home, and has to carry out family duties. However, there are rights that female journalists are being denied, and these rights are approved by labor laws.”

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