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Lisa Wilkinson’s Andrew Olle Lecture and women in media

AAP/Paul Miller

Lisa Wilkinson took the opportunity of her Andrew Olle Lecture to reflect on the position of women in the Australian media. An appropriate focus, considering she’s only the second woman to deliver this lecture in sixteen years. And timely, given the recent stoush over the near absence of women in Tony Abbott’s first cabinet.

As someone who is involved in the education of journalists, it’s long been apparent to me that our university lecture and seminar rooms are overwhelmingly populated by young women. That was true in the UK, where I worked until 2010, and it’s true at QUT, where I’m the journalism professor. Enthusiastic, talented women are queueing up to become the journalists of the future, to follow in the footsteps of contemporary Australian media stars such as Leigh Sales, Janet Albrechtsen, and Wilkinson herself.

Indeed, Lisa lists an impressive number of successful female Australian journalists, which requires us to acknowledge that there has been dramatic progress in the status of women in Australian media,since the days when they tended to be steered into “women’s journalism” such as that offered by Dolly Magazine (where Lisa began her career).

Today, more women than ever before are highly visible, highly respected, powerful elements of the Fourth Estate. Ita Buttrose has become an elder stateswoman of the post-feminist media, her pioneering role in the feminisation of Australian journalism celebrated in TV drama and elsewhere.

But as 2011’s Paper Giants showed, sexism was an important factor in Australian newsrooms in the 1970s, and women like Buttrose who fought against it and won were very much the exception. Things have changed since then, but there is a long way to go. Sexism still constrains women in journalism, which gets more male in its professional profile the higher up one goes in any Australian media organisation. How many female editors of newspapers are there in Australia in 2013? How many female heads of news in broadcasting? Not very many. Not enough, for sure.

So what happens to those young women who outnumber their male colleagues studying journalism in our universities? What is holding them back from achieving real parity with men in the workplace? What stops them seizing the commanding heights of the media economy, such as CEO of News Corp Australia, or Managing Director of the ABC?

Time will heal in this respect, as growing numbers of female entrants to the profession advance through the ranks in the years and decades to come. The pace of change will vary between organisations, because some are simply more blokey and macho than others.

But resistance to women in top jobs has declined in Australia, in every sphere – except perhaps politics – and women such as Kate Torney, head of news at the ABC, can reasonably expect to be contenders for the MD role before too long. To support that shift, more has to be done to enable women to be both journalists and mothers, which means deep structural change in the working environment of media organisations.

That’s if the audience will buy into it. Wilkinson’s lecture expresses frustration about the prevailing focus on female appearance in media performance.

As a woman in the media, it has long saddened me that while we delight in covering public issues of overt sexism – possibly the hottest topic in media over the last twelve months – the media itself can be every bit as guilty of treating women entirely differently to men. And in terms of our audience, the cliché is so often true – it is women who can turn out to be a woman’s harshest critic.

She cites emails from women critical of her dress sense in front of the camera, who comment as if she were presenting as a supermodel rather than a journalist.

The reality of modern media is that both men and women are under huge pressure to function as eye candy for the fickle audience. Women, however, are particularly subject to this expectation, and more likely to suffer when found wanting. Lisa Wilkinson’s beauty is not in doubt, but her point is that it shouldn’t matter one way or the other. Perhaps her Andrew Olle lecture will be the catalyst for a discussion about the extent to which “looks” continue to be a measure of value for the female journalist in Australia.

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