/ 29 October 2011

Media’s gender apartheid

Media's Gender Apartheid

Outgoing Johannesburg Stock Exchange chief executive Russell Loubser’s recent slapping of a female Mail & Guardian reporter’s behind at a press conference serves as a metaphor for women’s relative disempowerment in the corporate world — including in media companies.

His sexist gesture was made possible by women’s continuing secondary status and limited access to power in the private sector, including in mainstream media companies. Notably, this blight on our demo-cracy receives little public attention.

Not so with black people’s position. Justifiably, there has been an outcry about the slow rate of inclusion of black people in the upper echelons of corporate power, including in print media companies. But, predictably, the more gaping disparity has passed without comment.

The only commendable change has been the boosting of the percentage of black editors from 7% before 1994 to 65% at present. Apart from that, Print Media SA puts black ownership at only 14% and black board membership at 17.8%. At print media companies, women across the races fill a paltry 4.4% of posts at board and senior-management levels among the top four companies (Avusa, Caxton, Independent Newspapers and Media24). At two of the companies, only one out of 10 directors is a woman.

A 2009 Gender Links study found that fewer than 30% of top managers in the media were women, even though half of newsrooms are female. According to a 2007 Sanef/Gender Links study, black women constituted only 18% of newsroom staff and a pitiful 6% of top management, despite representing 42% of the population.

Thus, unsurprisingly, only 20% of news sources are women. This reflects the broader corporate trend: at JSE-listed companies, black female directors stand at 10.2% and black female executives at 1.2%.

We have to ask ourselves why the abysmal underrepresentation of especially black women at senior level has so quickly become normalised that it provokes little audible resistance. The exclusion of the “black other” formed the master narrative of apartheid and we should be fully engaged with overturning its effects. But there is a tendency in public discourse to forget apartheid’s “other others”, such as women.

This amnesia enables an expedient erasure of present social and political exclusions of women, which fits with current attempts in the name of “culture” and religion to roll back women’s post-1994 advances.

Focusing on race allows the obfuscation of more insidious disparities at the intersection of race and gender, such as black women’s specific disadvantage. Downplaying gender hinders the examination of the reasons for the low numbers of even white women at senior levels, despite their relative privilege. Clearly, when it comes to career progression in the media, gender trumps race as a category of exclusion.

In the 2009 study, female respondents identified “the old boys’ network” as the main obstacle preventing their ascendance in media ranks. The “old boys’ network” can be defined as a macho hegemony geared to maintaining the status quo.

The 2007 study noted “deliberate investments into redressing the racial imbalances of the past, especially when it comes to black men”. Why not for black women, whose gender status compounds their race status? Women’s low representation at the large media institutions suggests that powerful white men can afford to allow selected black men into the old boys’ network, where they bond on the basis of the exclusion and objectification of women.

Loubser’s performance of masculine power, in what was reportedly a room full of men, was a public demonstration of such bonding. The decision by male M&G editors to expose his action is a bracing reminder that sexism is not a blanket condition in the media.

Postcolonial theorist Ashis Nandy defines colonialism as a “shared culture” deeply rooted in the minds of both the coloniser and the colonised. An integral part of this shared culture, says Nandy, is “hypermasculinity”, which regards the masculine as “absolutely superior” to the feminine.

If hypermasculinity is being propped up at the intersection of race and gender in the boardroom, could it be that a particular construction of whiteness is also being bolstered at that intersection, in a cynical quid pro quo? This would explain why even some black-headed media stridently insist that government maintains economic policies that reproduce white privilege at the expense of most South Africans.

The mainstream media’s persistent exclusion of women as decision-makers and news sources raises an obvious question about its agitation for freedom of expression: “Freedom of expression for whom?”

Christi van der Westhuizen is the author of White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party