The gender gap – what it means in the media & for our finances

Iona Bain

When I get into conversation with someone about my profession – the meeja – I very often tell them how it’s been “feminised”.

To be honest, they look totally freaked out when I say this, and I don’t blame them. They’re wondering…is that a good or bad thing!? Am I denigrating my profession, “doing down” the sisterhood or on the cusp of a feminist tirade? And what the hell does it actually mean?

This is what “feminisation” means (to me, at least). Women are entering journalism by the shedload. They now outnumber men on journalism training courses up and down the country. Research from City University London has found that 65 per cent of journalists who have entered the profession in the last three years are women. The gender split in the journalism profession is now 55/45 – far more equal than the nearly all-male newsrooms that overwhelmingly shaped our media in times gone by.

Yet a recent study of bylines in national newspapers found women are far less likely to get big front page stories, write about politics (let alone become political editors), report on crime and cover big business.

Turn the pages of a weekend supplement or magazine (of which there does not appear to be any real male equivalent) and we find female writers in abundance. This time, they’re mostly writing about diets, celebrities, fitness, cooking, shoes, handbags, beauty products and cushions.

For many female journalists, all roads lead back to consumerism. This trend started in the 1980s when big business realised it needed female writers to give authenticity to the wares they were advertising. So perhaps when we discuss the feminisation of journalism, we’re also talking about the commercialisation of print media as a whole. This process has been imperative to the survival of newspapers, who desperately need to court advertisers now they’re mortally threatened by online media offering speedier news coverage for free.

So far from these female writers being shunted into tiny corners of the media, they’re actually given a picture byline and acres of space to expound on the joys of microdermabrasion, or whatever they’ve been sent a press release about that week. That’s why these positions have retained a lustrous status among young female journalists and why there will always be tough competition for roles that involve writing about culottes, while a recent position for full-time personal finance editor nearly went unfilled due to poor interest (true story).

Don’t get me wrong; I often enjoy reading about typically “female” issues like beauty, clothes, home improvement etc and my late grandma was a founding editor of the Daily Mail’s Femail section, something which gives me great pride. I enjoy these articles all the more when I don’t think it has been engineered solely to sell me a product  – though sadly this isn’t very often – and I very much appreciate the need for light and shade in our news coverage; as important as the Syrian conflict and the American election are, we can’t be writing and thinking about them all the time.

However, it seems to me that many young female journos very often have to choose between getting high profile, high status and reasonably well-paid gigs, but essentially being a fluff monger, or labouring away in “serious” parts of journalism but going largely unrecognised, un-promoted and underpaid for their efforts.

More than 20 per cent of journalists are barely earning the minimum wage, according to the National Union of Journalists (a statistic corroborated by the Reuters Institute & Oxford University). And guess what? The Reuters Institute found that half of female journalists earn less than £2400 a month, compared to a third of male journalists. Meanwhile a third of male journalists are likely to earn more than £4000 a month – a salary that only 22 per cent of female journalists enjoy.

The REALLY stark trade-off occurs when women think about their personal lives. Female journalists at the start of their careers will often match or even surpass their male counterparts in terms of success and earnings. However, many men will then go on to have senior positions AND enjoy a family life while women are much more likely to be (happily or unhappily) childless should they attain the same status.

If a woman decides to have a family, she will probably make far slower progress than men in the traditional corporate structure of a media organisation. More than two decades after entering the profession and only 18 per cent will be senior managers – in stark contrast to 37 per cent of men.

These statistics betray the crude binary choice currently being made by women – and men – if they want to conform to the standard journalism career path. If they take the conventional “serious” career, it ends up being highly noxious for their personal life; an almost manic existence with long, anti-social hours, a coat on the back of the chair for most of the day (and some weekends) and copious networking with contacts outside of work. Some people enter into this quite happily, for they are absolutely obsessed with their job and wouldn’t want it any other way. This does mean, however, that they either don’t have a family or they don’t get to spend enough time as they would like with their family. Fact.

Business reporters can testify to the deep regrets of top executives in relation to their family life. No salary, however great, is ever enough compensation for failing to get home at night to read a bedtime story or missing out on your son’s piano recital.

Women – and men – who want to be “serious” journalists make a decision to have children and see very little of them (while paying through the nose for childcare) or not to have children at all. So in this framework, women very often take the easier road into ‘softer’ (i.e. feminised) areas of journalism which aren’t as hectic and allow them to have more well-rounded life.

But this decision also has profound implications for the female consumers of media, not just those creating it. Women are going out to work in greater numbers than ever before and that means lots of lovely disposable income – the ultimate prize for advertisers. Once upon a time they sustained business by enticing women to spend their husband’s money in new and exciting ways (since men had little time outside work to reap the rewards of their labour). Now, they use female writers to appeal directly to “empowered” women by saying; Hey! It is your fundamental human right to get out there and SHOP!

So ladies can be induced to spend money on crap that somehow never makes its way onto the man’s agenda (nail art, anyone?!) And just maybe at the bottom of all this is the underlying assumption – STILL – that being a spendthrift doesn’t really matter when you have a man’s salary to fall back on in the future.

Women’s magazines are particularly guilty of perpetuating a materialist mentality among their female readers for advertising purposes, only including advice about finances and other serious issues as a box-ticking afterthought. Not to mention all the articles on how to bag that dream man!

It doesn’t have to be this way. Women can now be wise with their finances, have a meaningful career (whether in journalism or something else) AND have a well-rounded life, whether they want to get married and have children or remain happily single. Being financially independent and determined to reject the compliant female consumer role is the only way we can carve out a rich life outside the conventional workplace system – and our outdated mainstream media – that has tended to keep women down in more than ways than one.

We don’t have to make an either/or choice about our careers anymore. We no longer have to be tied to an office. Technology is making it possible for us to do jobs remotely, and do multiple jobs at that. Gone are the days when someone would be solely defined by one workplace (or by work only done in the home, for that matter). We can be lifestyle entrepreneurs, build multi-faceted brands and work the hours we want – if we’re encouraged to, that is. We can see work in all sorts of ways – renovating homes, selling goods online, renting out our skills and so son. In my case, I can choose to work as much (if not more) in disruptive online media rather than put all my eggs in the (frankly shaky) newspaper basket. All we need to embrace this way of life is a) the skin of a rhino and b) financial knowhow. We need to be smart in our spending and saving to keep us on the straight and narrow, even being prepared to take a bit of risk in the stock market to overcome dreadful interest rates. Sadly, men still outnumber women in personal investing – so how we can we change this?

Here we come back in a circular fashion to the world of journalism. Thankfully, there are more and more talented women now going into personal finance journalism, although some believe it is becoming a so-called “pink ghetto” in the business pages due to the stereotype of women shepherding the household finances. Personally, I think we should be overjoyed that more women are writing for AND now editing these PF sections (as long as they don’t do it in a reductive fashion, of course) but it’s not enough. We need to be talking far more about women and money, not just in traditional media but everywhere – online, on social media, in our friendship groups. Everywhere. Let’s make finances a solidly female issue without any shame or the need to couch it in pink colours, patronising language or with the caveat that we’re only discussing it because more saving = more shoes!!

After all, what’s better for a women’s personal prospects? Being dependant on a highly paid job and/or partner with no personal provisions should either fall down, and being content to fritter away your life’s work on ephemera? Or being resourceful with one’s finances so you can lead the life that makes you TRULY happy?

Tough choice, that one…

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