Women in Journalism Scotland – 2020 survey results
Investigative reporters Marion Scott, Sunday Post; Lisa Summers and Samantha Poling, of BBC Scotland.
By Lucy Ashton
GENDER equality in the media industry has taken a ‘serious’ hit as a result of the 2020 pandemic – according to the results of a survey run by Women in Journalism Scotland, supported by Gender Equal Media Scotland.
The figures reveal significant job losses, overwhelming workloads and unmanageable caring commitments that have pushed some to cut their hours or give up work altogether.
Catriona MacPhee, co-chair of Women in Journalism Scotland, said: “It has been quite heartbreaking to go through the results of this survey and read of the experiences of not just a few, but dozens upon dozens of women, who say they are barely coping.
“This has undoubtedly been a terrible year for everyone, but it’s clear that women have been disproportionately affected by cuts in the industry and by regression of equality in the workplace and at home. This has serious implications when media reporting has never been more important.
“At the same time, while it’s extremely worrying to see an increase in hostility towards all journalists in 2020, women are being targeted more, particularly with sexist and personal abuse. We are deeply worried by this trend and believe that, as an industry, it’s time we joined forces across the board to not only stamp out unacceptable attacks, but to ensure proper support and protection is given to those being abused.”
Alys Mumford, chair of the Gender Equal Media Scotland Coalition, said: “These stark survey results show that the challenges already facing women in the media in Scotland have been exacerbated by the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women.
“Already more likely to be in precarious employment, on part-time hours, or undertaking freelance work, this year has seen women in the media facing further job uncertainty, increased unpaid care work, and deteriorating mental health.
“Black and minoritised women, disabled women, and women from other under-represented groups will be at even greater risk from the combined threats of the Covid-19 pandemic, and institutional sexism in the media.
“2020 has highlighted, perhaps more than ever, the necessity of good journalism. Unless media institutions change their structures to better support women – tackling sexism, examining workplace cultures, ensuring that childcare isn’t a barrier to employment, and taking action against online abuse – Scotland will not have the media that women need.
“We are grateful to organisations like Women in Journalism Scotland who are working to highlight these issues, and look forward to working with them for a gender-equal media in the coming year.”
Job security and commissions
Just under half (47.5 per cent) of those in contracted employment have either already lost their job (18 per cent) during the pandemic or fear losing it within the next year (29 per cent).
Some 59 per cent of freelancers have lost commissions, and, of these, two-thirds have lost more than half their expected commissions as a result of the pandemic.This means that 38.5 per cent of freelance women working in the media have lost more than half of their work in 2020. Several respondents also highlighted their observations that women from minority backgrounds had been particularly sidelined and marginalised during the past year.
Given that the impact of these contract losses is likely to linger, this speaks to a longer-term issue of losing diverse voices in Scottish journalism. It also shows how precarious jobs in the media industry are just now, which adds an additional burden of stress to those still in the industry and a major disincentive for those seeking careers in the media.
The following quotes are extracts from the survey respondents:
“I live alone, my income has collapsed, I’ve burned through all my savings and I’m not sure I’ll have enough work after Christmas. I’m finding it exceptionally hard to cope or to see anything positive in the future.”
“I am not optimistic for the future as I feel there will be many more journalists chasing much fewer jobs and, as a freelance, I will be at the end of a very long line with no real support to find paid employment… If I was a single-parent family I would seriously consider retraining as things are so precarious.”
“The number of job losses is worrying, especially cuts to part-time positions which are predominantly held by women.”
Exactly 56 per cent of respondents reported having been given an increased workload and additional responsibilities at work without being compensated in any way. Given the additional stressors and pressures on women journalists – such as childcare responsibilities and level of abuse, as detailed below – this is cause for concern.
“The workload has been absolutely immense, and we’ve been given hardly any support to work so hard while not seeing family or friends for months.”
“Before the pandemic, we were already stretched. I’ve lost a lot of colleagues in the past two years. We lost more to furlough and, eventually, redundancy. Trying to keep the production of a newspaper going when everybody is working at home is a lot more exhausting than I expected… I also think that we’ve seen the effects of trying to run publications on skeleton staff… there’s just no respite.”
Of those respondents with children under-16, 78 per cent reported that childcare and home-schooling responsibilities had fallen to them, which reflects wider societal gender norms. A third of respondents (31 per cent) stated that their employer had been unaccommodating of these additional caring responsibilities.
Equally damaging is the finding that 11 per cent of respondents with children had to cut back on work or give it up entirely in order to fulfil their family responsibilities. Three-quarters (79 per cent) of those caring for children, while working during the pandemic, described this as difficult, but as having no other choice.
Women journalists are therefore not only managing multiple roles to a greater extent than their male counterparts, but are also often being forced to negotiate the rigidity of their employers’ demands.
“Being the main childcare provider, I feel having to take time off to care for my children during lockdown impacted on how I was viewed in the newsroom. Instead of doing news when I came back I was pushed into features and those who had not taken time off were given bigger stories.”
“I felt isolated and scared. As a single parent, I also had to do all the homeschooling. I felt a heavy burden on me and felt very fearful about the future.”
“I have had to homeschool my children and work at the same time, sometimes doing the First Minister briefings. The news has changed throughout the day, and pages had to be re-written. I felt overwhelmed at times with no respite.”
Public perceptions of journalists
Nearly 60 per cent agreed that people are more likely to rely on journalists to inform them of public health messages, contributing to a culture in which journalists are crucial to the dissemination of accurate, accessible information and advice. However, at the same time, 43 per cent of respondents believe that people think journalists are less trustworthy as a result of the events of 2020.
“So many people despise you and what you do. Even family members talk about lying media. It’s exhausting, dispiriting.”
“People accusing me of spreading misinformation, people being incredibly nasty in terms of the political stories I write.”
Around 61 per cent of respondents said that levels of abuse towards journalists had increased as a result of the events of 2020. In the context of greater societal reliance on journalists for public health guidance this figure is troubling, and prompts questions about what measures are in place to protect journalists, particularly women journalists who tend to receive more extreme abuse.
Approximately 36 per cent of women journalists responding to the WIJS questionnaire stated that they had received abuse of some kind this year whilst doing their job, either on social media, on the phone – and for nine women even in person.
Our survey was open to all women working in the media, including in communications and in non-public-facing media roles, but we believe that if that question was applied solely to public-facing reporters the number would be significantly higher.
When asked to detail the abuse they had received, many respondents cited sexist abuse, several reported racist abuse, and several said that members of the public had sought out private information about them or obtained their email address in order to send targeted abuse and to encourage others to do the same.
A worrying trend within the responses was the repeated assertion of this abuse as “just the normal”,”Just trolling…from regular trolls”, “taking abusive calls ends up being par for the course”, “I have learned to manage abuse…”.
This shows that abuse has become normalised – viewed as inevitable, even – and sadly, as an accepted downside of the job. Online abuse was repeatedly referred to as a factor in mental ill health. With active social media presences now seen as prerequisite for many public-facing journalists, it highlights the anomaly that, while employers expect staff to maintain online presences, very few provide support in dealing with abuse or are actively tackling it.
When respondents were asked what issues they wanted WIJS to campaign on their behalf about, online abuse was the second most popular topic cited.
“I had to completely delete my social media because of burnout.”
“I think the main challenge is in the online abuse women are subject to in the toxic environment of social media – and how that can lead to self-censorship and people leaving the profession (not to mention the impact on mental health).”
“The online abuse of women, particularly women from marginalised groups, is horrific. I don’t know a single woman journalist who hasn’t experienced it.”
“Armchair misogynists emboldened by world events.”
“Journalists shouldn’t be scared out of writing things but the culture of social media can create a situation where this is a factor in decision-making. Even in editorial decisions I’ve witnessed this being a factor and it absolutely shouldn’t be.”
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Given the pressures outlined above, it is unfortunately not surprising that half (50.5 per cent) of respondents described their mental health as having been impacted to the extent that they were unable to do their job to their usual standard. This is significant and deeply worrying, particularly in light of the fact that just under half of respondents are working freelance, and therefore are unable to access any kind of employee mental health benefits.
“Feel burnt out constantly writing and reading Covid-19 related content.”
“Overall, my mental health has been affected as I work entirely from home and one bleeds into the other and into my free time…There’s been times I’ve been writing till 3am when that never used to be the case. It’s not good for me but I seem unable to manage my time or keep within sensible hours when I’m spending my entire life in one room.”
“Really struggling to focus on work/getting work when I am just trying to survive.”
40 per cent of affected women said that the symptoms of the menopause impacted their ability to do their jobs, with 91 per cent of those saying that their employer had not been flexible or accommodating of this.
This indicates that employers’ understanding of menopause and support for women going through the menopause is a critical factor in women’s ability to perform their work to the highest standard.
Equality as a casualty of 2020, in the words of women in the media:
“Equality being one of the first things to regress as a result of the stresses of 2020, particularly with regard to domestic responsibilities.”
“Sadly, it is still difficult to progress your career as a female within journalism. When I started out there were hardly any women involved, it became better over the years but sadly we are back at almost square one. I’m still the only female in conferences more often than not. Despite award-winning female voices, positions of power are held by far more males.
“Childcare, maternity, part-time working are all still huge issues. Countless examples of downsizing newsrooms where women-part time workers are adversely hit. I question whether this will ever be resolved.”
“Having to deal with the same nonsense I was dealing with in 1995.”
“Sexual equality you think would have been addressed in the 80s but we are struggling with the equality even today in 2020. There is more conversation but less change. It’s not enough to talk about what needs to change and attitudes towards the change more actions.”