No Sexism, Please, We’re Broadcasters
Slowly women are gaining equality in the newsroom
There is an impression on the street that the only places in which female journalists don’t get the same treatment as men in the business are in the locker rooms of some of the major sports franchises.
But women in television news generally agree that the sexual equality officially on display for viewers of the average newscast misrepresents the actual working reality. There are many more women on the air now than there were 20 years ago, but they say that youth and beauty will still be in the job specs for female anchors and reporters long after some of their older, plainer male counterparts have been put out to pasture.
My own experience as an anchor and what I have observed in TV newsrooms confirm that suspicion. For example, there isn’t much doubt that a major reason Jan Tennant was allowed to get away from Ontario’s Global Television was management’s mistaken notion that she was getting too old.
Tennant, easily the most professional anchor I ever worked with, and one of the nicest people, will continue to be beautiful (and would have graced any TV newscast on this continent) until she’s a very, very old lady.
She could have been the Katharine Hepburn of TV news in this country, and like Hepburn, is still capable of drawing very large daily news audiences. Instead, she is freelancing in Vancouver, and happy to be out of it.
If Canadian society and the TV news industry were completely free of sexism, there would be no reason for women who want to be on air in a TV newscast to worry more about their looks than their male counterparts.
As things are, they do have to worry, and those whose looks are borderline have to submit to exhaustive cosmetic efforts to erase the ravages of time or to compensate for any shortfall in natural advantages. Men are spared this unflattering reconstruction.
My daughter, Anne Jenkins, Ottawa news producer for Global Television, says that there is pay equity now for women in TV news not just because male managers have seen the error of their ways, but because TV newswomen know the labor code, and are unionized.
Jan Tennant knew the labor code incidentally, particularly in regard to statutory holidays, and she was vocal about it. That may have been another reason why Global didn’t go out of its way to hang on to her.
“But there is still a degree of discrimination,” Jenkins says, “not by the younger males, but by those of the old school. In their case, there is still some winning over to be done.” I know the feeling. Things have been changing too rapidly for most of us, and I for one had no idea that I’d been a chauvinist swine all my life until I was into my forties. I’m sure some of the women who worked with me could have told me years earlier, but women didn’t do that in those days. Jenkins says there is still discrimination against women in the TV news workforce because they are mothers. Children, when they are sick for example, must sometimes take precedence over a mother’s employment, and that can cause friction with male bosses.
But the things that really get her down are those demeaning pats on the bum, sexist remarks disguised as humor, and even, when tempers rise, dirty cracks about the time of the month.
“Maybe they think if they make jokes about sexism that that isn’t sexist,” she says. “There is a lot of that actually.” The woman’s role in TV news, she feels, is now much closer to the man’s role, particularly if you are speaking of producers and reporters. There has never been a “women’s page” in TV news, of course, although there have been clearly labelled “women’s issues.” But women are no longer assigned exclusively to that kind of story, and the assignment breakdown in most newsrooms is much fairer than it used to be.
The receptionists in TV newsrooms still tend to be women, however, and so do the script assistants. The people in charge of the production end of TV newscasts the directors are men for the most part, and so are camera operators and tape editors. Oddly enough, women may be doing rather better in senior news management than they are in some intermediate roles.
Trina McQueen, for example, a former colleague with whom I walked a picket line in the early 1970s, is now the director of news and current affairs for the CBC network. She told Canadian Press recently that she has encountered “great reluctance” and “open opposition” from some male employees during her time there, and sometimes still runs into traces of it.
But in the same story she is quoted as saying that the atmosphere has changed radically since the day in 1968 when she started work as the only woman in the CBC’s Toronto newsroom.
“There were things you just shut up about,” said McQueen, recalling conditions on the old fifth floor of the Jarvis Street TV building. “You knew they had absolutely no hope of getting on the show because they weren’t in the consciousness of people who were running the show.”
She’s right, I know, because a couple of years later one of those people was me, and although I had liberal views about human rights, I was as insensitive to women’s issues as most of my sixties contemporaries.
What I don’t understand is how sexism has survived in TV news. We are, after all, the fountainhead in this so called information age, not just the clearinghouse for shifting manners and mores, but a primary force for change. One of the most significant developments I’ve come across, a good omen for the future, is the number of times lately in TV news marriages that the woman’s career has been given first consideration.
I can think of at least three recent cases offhand, but the one I know best is the one closest to me. Anne and Phil Jenkins were both working for the CBC in Toronto until a couple of years ago when Anne was offered the Ottawa job with Global.
They decided together it was too good to turn down, and Anne accepted before they knew what Phil was going to do. As it turned out, Phil, then a producer at The journal, got a job with Newsworld in Ottawa, and has now moved to CBOT.
It is this kind of erosion of the traditional views about male and female roles, and the disappearance of a sexual pecking order, that will in the end do more to ensure real equality than the lip service paid to it by some of the reluctant older men who still run TV newsrooms.
Peter McMahon was the Associate Editor for the Summer 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.