This post, based on a conversation that took place during a webinar organised by Emma Goodman in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Media Partnership’s team, dives into some of the issues highlighted by the recent award-winning solution-based report on gender and the intersectionality of gender and race in news by Luba Kassova, From Outrage to Opportunity. Here, Luba speaks to Qaanitah Hunter, Assistant Editor: Politics and Opinions at News24 in South Africa.


Luba: South Africa is an interesting outlier in the research that we’ve done because it is almost there in terms of women’s representation: we found that there is almost gender parity in the most senior roles in political, health and business beats. So my question is, does that translate into true inclusion of women in the newsroom? And what’s your personal lived experience as a woman of colour?

Qaanitah: South Africa is miles ahead of our neighbours on the African continent – and around the world – in relation to this issue of gender parity in the newsroom. I think there are a couple of reasons for this: the first is that the conversation around gender parity was structured into our conversations as a country when our democracy was founded 30 years ago. We had conversations around gender parity in Parliament, for example, or in the National Cabinet, so there is an existing conversation in society about having women represented in different spheres. The irony of South Africa, however, is that while we can boast about gender parity in terms of our Cabinet and Parliament, we are also a femicide capital of the world, and gender-based violence is more prominent in South Africa in comparison to any other country on the continent, if not the world.

So that’s the broader environment that we work in as journalists – it is a microcosm of wider society. We’ve also done very well within the media landscape to first have gender parity in the newsroom, and now more so in management. 

However, it’s not a utopia or a perfect situation. In South Africa the challenges are vast, and representation and inclusion are not automatic. 

One thing to look at is the separation of news leaders and news managers. Corporations prefer female managers to run newsrooms. Why? Because we are damn good at our jobs. However, if you look at the declining rate of female editors-in-chief, you’ll understand that corporations will not appoint female editors in chief unless in exceptional situations. And so, the old adage of ‘we have to work twice as hard to get half of what our male counterparts get’ is very alive and thriving within South African newsrooms.

The reality is that yes, South Africa does well in terms of representation of women in serious beats. You go to a press conference with the President, and at least 60% of the room will be woman journalists. You go to the national Budget announcement and at least half the room are female journalists. But then, when the President is giving exclusive interviews, at least four out of five of those journalists will be men.

And that’s what the conversation has to be about – not just about representation in a room, but true inclusion. My journey in journalism in South Africa was completely an anomaly in many aspects. Firstly, I joined the newsroom as one of the youngest journalists to be given a shift. Secondly, I was a woman of colour in South Africa; Thirdly, I was a visibly Muslim person wearing a hijab.

Now South Africa, for all of its problems, is a great country when it comes to just allowing people to be. It’s not a far-fetched thing that a woman in a hijab regularly interviews the president, or regularly critiques the president. I think this is very much tied with our democratic project as a society. 

But again, it’s not perfect and the reality is that the scale against which men and women journalists are judged is very different. We also have a huge gender pay gap in South Africa. The incentive for big corporations to hire a woman as a middle manager or a news editor is therefore higher because they can pay them less. So there’s an irony here – it’s both a win and a loss.

If there’s a lesson that I would want to impart from this discussion today, it’s that bums on seats is not enough. We have to look at it in a more nuanced way and appreciate that they’re hiring all of these female middle managers, because number one, they work harder, and number two, they can pay them less.

In the conversation around inclusion, we have to scratch beneath the surface – in my experience I had phenomenal opportunities as a young journalist in South Africa. When it came to big stories, front page stories, investigations, stories involving the former President – there’s always male and female representation in who breaks the big story. 

But if you look at awards: who gets the awards? Males. And if you scratch a little deeper: for example in 2013 when President Nelson Mandela died, this was a huge story that we as a country had planned for – we were literally camping outside the hospitals. I covered everything: I covered the death, the memorials, the reactions of heads of state, the family feuds, everything. But when the time came for the funeral, the big moment, the news editor came to me and said he’s not sending me – he said: “We’re going to send a male colleague [who’s done absolutely nothing on the story], because it’s easier for him to pee on the side of the road”. This was a metaphor for ‘we need to send a man, he’ll be better at it.’ 

That silly, ridiculous statement and episode has stuck in my mind now as a manager, remembering that women work on the big stories not because they are given to them but because we have to go and fight for it. This is something that your report, Luba, points to: – we’re fighting internally, and we’re fighting externally. So when the office of the President offers an exclusive interview, women journalists have to fight their male colleagues (who literally have not been covering the President at all) for that opportunity, and then go and fight with the newsmakers and the politicians.

Luba Kassova

Luba: What would you say are the things that work best for you and your colleagues in terms of making the bums on seats count – i.e. being included? 

Being intentional 

Qaanitah: So the first thing is, be intentional. This is a conversation we constantly have in our South African National Editors Forum among those who have made it into senior management in newsrooms – we have to be intentional in terms of recruitment. That’s the bare minimum, and it’s something your report covers extensively.

Putting in place processes that support women 

The second thing about inclusion is creating a situation where we are not playing a man’s. game. So in South Africa, as well as things like non-negotiable maternity leave, there are other huge considerations that we have as women, for example safety considerations which maybe some of our colleagues in other countries don’t have. Therefore, it’s important to take the approach that a woman should cover the story by virtue of the fact that she is equipped to do it, but we don’t discount the fact that she is more at risk by virtue of being a woman, so we send a male colleague to assist her (and not the other way around.)

Sharing responsibility for women’s inclusion across the organisation

The third thing is to have open conversations with the newsrooms about not making gender inclusion conversation the responsibility of women and putting the onus on women alone. I think that once we bring these conversations to the fore, it allows us to share collective responsibility, because it’s not our struggle alone.

Finally, inclusion makes financial sense. Once executives understand the value of not only putting bums on seats but actually empowering woman journalists, and the financial sense of it, which your report deals with in detail – it just makes the battle so much easier to fight. 

Again, I cannot stress this enough – the fight for women’s inclusion cannot be a woman’s fight alone.


Download the report From Outrage to Opportunity

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