The percentage of women in Indian journalism has been rising every day spanning the many areas of media ranging from print through radio, television and the Internet. Women have taken leading roles in news channels and even on the boards of some national newspapers of course, via family ties the paper already has. This is not confined to the English media but reaches out far and wide to embrace the languages recognized by the Indian constitution and has publications or channels or stations delivering in these languages. The rise in new technology has widened to include women journalists who have broadened their skills and developed expertise in several different types of media.
Growth opportunities for women in the media are available. Women who have already achieved top positions are generally bringing others along and encouraging a new generation of women media leaders. But the road to the top, especially for women in the South Asian media which includes India is not a smooth one. This does not mean that barriers and obstacles to success women face each day cannot be met and surmounted with success. Gone are the days when journalism was considered to be a predominantly male domain. There were women who were strong and bold and succeeded in their careers but in terms of numbers, they formed a fractional percentage of men in the field. Few however, could reach the top of the pyramid even if they were sufficiently qualified, had long track records and had done some wonderful work.
Homai Vyarawalla was India’s very first woman photojournalist. She journeyed through the evolution of the camera as a technical innovation, the fluid and slow changes that came in the process of still photography and the treatment and approach to subject/s, events and landscapes photographed. Vyarawalla’s political photographs are a vivid document of the turbulent years that heralded and followed Independence. Her striking images of the death of Gandhiji and the visits of international dignitaries such as Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth and Jackie Kennedy are stamped forever in public memory.
Prabha Dutt, late mother of today’s fiery journalist Barkha Dutt began her training with Hindustan Times, Delhi in 1964. But after her internship, the editor informed her that the newspaper organization did not employ women. When they changed their rules to include women, she barged into the editor’s office demanding a job. She got it. In course of time, she became the first woman chief reporter of a national daily. Today, her daughter Barkha holds an enviable position in a national news channel anchoring talk shows and panel discussions, covering intensive and extensive field work and so on. But the story has not changed much from the time women could not access top jobs in media organizations in spite of their expertise and their qualifications.
Even today, in most newsrooms across the world the leaders who head media organizations or edit news channels or papers are man. Though women comprise more than half the world’s population, men routinely decide what news they should hear and read. What is the impact on women when the news is constantly reported from a male point of view? In other words, every news story or investigative report is bound to be coloured by the patriarchal mindsets of the males never mind how liberated or pro-women or progressive they are. Sample this: Whoever controls assignments, whoever decides how a story is going to be covered, whoever decides what placement that story gets in a newspaper or over the airwaves, is not only shaping content of news, but is deciding what readers and listeners know and how they know it. Media leaders are not just industry leaders, they have the power to shape society’s attitudes. In a democracy like India, the media is also known as the Fourth Estate that is the invisible but very powerful fourth arm of the three government machineries – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.
Till the late 1980s, women reporters in most Indian dailies were barred from doing night duty which was a double-edged disadvantage for the women. One, they lost out on the stories that came on the teleprinter before the computer age, late in the night. Two, since they had no access to high voltage news stories that filtered in the night, their promotions were automatically either halted or slowed down. In one newspaper in Mumbai, the women reporters, numbering one less than the figure for men, approached the editor to demand night duty. They were told that the office did not consider it safe for women to do night duty as they had to go home at unearthly hours of the morning. Another hollow reason was that the newspaper office did not have separate toilets women journalists could report to at night and had to go downstairs which could be unsafe. But they insisted stating that their ‘safety’ was their concern and that they would not lose out on promotions because of some out-dated office rule. They had to give a fight but ultimately, they won their cause and doors to night duty for women opened followed by other publication offices subsequently.
However, though electronic media like television and also the internet has removed these antique barriers for women journalists, problems continue to dog them at every step. Sometimes, the social taboos that sustain in a given region, say some pockets in Punjab and Haryana and UP where families do not permit girls and women to enter into journalism as a profession, have their impact on the girls themselves who would shy away from stepping into a career their families did not approve of or that might stand in the way of their marriage as the other family would be similarly conditioned. Many women in metro cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and so on are forced to give up a good career as a journalist because their marriage or a transfer in the husband’s job makes it impossible for them to continue at their own jobs. This has signed the end of many a bright career of a woman journalist. Men, on the other hand, have no such problems to face.
One report on women journalists in India points out that woman from small towns and rural areas who migrate to the cities with a journalist’s job find safe and good accommodation a big hindrance towards continuing at the job. Many girls from modern and progressive families are ready to leave their cities in search of employment in publications and news channels and radio stations. But the dearth of working women’s hostels in big cities create blocks in their careers. The report statues that due to non-availability of such hostels they end up living in dingy rooms in narrow lanes of urban villages like Munirka, Zia Sarai, Vinod Nagar and Mukherjee Nagar, Ber Sarai in South Delhi. If Delhi is in this condition, one shudders to think the situation in other Indian cities. Non cooperative roommates, unhygienic food and substandard accommodation are other problems women must face.
Other more serious issues are those of gender discrimination at the workplace while assigning stories or giving promotions or changing beats that hinder the rise of women in the profession even if they are very good at it. Tanu Sharma, 31, an anchor with INDIA TV tries to commit suicide by consuming poison because she had constant disputes with some in the organization. She claimed that a SMS she had sent to a staff member was taken as her resignation and she was not allowed to enter the office the following day. The channel offered the convenient excuse that she was suffering from depression and the matter ended there. But her messages on a social networking site clearly made allegations against senior channel officials who were hatching a conspiracy against her.
The Tarun Tejpal case of sexual harassment of a female colleague is still fresh on the pages of every print media in the country to be able to easily wipe it under the carpet of convenience. The aforementioned report states that the case has triggered a media debate about silence over the harassment of women at their places of work. India’s working women often face sexual harassment from colleagues, managers or employers, yet few report these cases, fearful of losing their jobs or facing persecution simply for speaking out, gender rights activists say.
Women journalists are often barred, subtly and indirectly from pursuing and filing ‘hard core” stories such a criminal cases and set off for lifestyle and glamour stories which are “safe” and more ‘woman-friendly.’ They forget that in addition to a different approach to reporting the news, women decision-makers may also change the rate at which women appear as subjects of the news and how they are portrayed by the media. Yet, the bright light at the end of the dark channel shows that a critical mass of women in leadership posts, it is now possible to find women who have moved into top media management and discover what contributions they are making.