One of the Guys

It's still rare for a reporter to be both fierce and female

Veteran Washington post media critic Howard Kurtz is known for hurling slings and arrows at members of his own profession. So his recent ode to ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz was unusual—up to a point. For all his praise of Raddatz for “putting herself in the thick of things,” Kurtz apparently could not sidestep the old gender trap. He finds Raddatz remarkable because she juggles being fierce and being female. We learn that the fifty-four-year-old has been to Iraq fourteen times but still cooks dinner, and—here Kurtz quotes ABC anchor Charles Gibson—is “gritty, without sacrificing any femininity,” someone who brings “a sensibility and sensitivity to these [Middle East] issues that is tough for a male correspondent to match.”

If Kurtz’s qualified tribute to Raddatz is any indication, sexist attitudes in journalism are still commonplace. A new Swedish study shows that even in that female-friendly nation, journalism evolved as a primarily male field and continues to be defined by men. Despite the rising numbers of women in its ranks, “journalism as a field has remained male-dominated,” writes Monika Djerf-Pierre, author of “The Gender of Journalism,” which appeared in the 2007 jubilee issue of the Scandinavian academic journal, Nordicom Review. Although she draws her conclusion from a review of Sweden’s journalism history, the arc of the profession there maps well on the American case, and many of her observations shed light on the fate of women journalists in the U.S.

In both countries, the story begins in the eighteenth century with widows filling in for their late printer husbands. Few women came to journalism in other ways until the twentieth century. A period of tokenism, in which women were an occasional presence, was followed by the build-up of a critical mass of women who entered the workforce in the last twenty-five years. Today, almost half of Swedish journalists are women. Although three out of four leaders in the media industry as a whole are men, women have assumed more than 40 percent of leadership positions in two important sectors—public broadcasting and magazines. Despite these strides, Djerf-Pierre explains that a general pattern—she calls it a “gender logic”—persists: men typically cover the public sphere of politics, business, and power, speaking to male sources and adopting the mantle of dispassionate objectivity; women tend to cover the private sphere of everyday life, drawing on female sources and writing in a more subjective and intimate style. In short, men are from The Wall Street Journal, women are from Cosmo.

Although the numbers (in percent) of female journalists in the U.S. do not measure up to those of Sweden, today in the U.S., more women are graduating from j-schools than ever. For the first time, women outnumbered men among U.S. journalists with less than five years experience, according to a 2002 national survey conducted by Indiana University.

Still, women in both the U.S. and Sweden are leaving journalism sooner and earning less than their male counterparts. In that same Indiana University survey, researchers found the median salary of female journalists to be $37,731—nearly 20 percent lower than the $46,758 pulled down by male journalists, a wage gap that widens as journalists grow older and more experienced.

Where women have advanced, earning their place hasn’t been easy. In Sweden, according to Djerf-Pierre, they have developed three strategies for entering the field. First, they have moved into the areas of journalism that have not become male-dominated—taking up investigative journalism in the early 1900s before it grew a mustache. Second, women have directly competed with men, although becoming “one of the boys” has often required more education, better contacts, and broader personal networks. The women prominent early in the field of international reporting, for instance, tended to have more experience abroad and sharper linguistic skills, and be of higher social class than male colleagues. Finally, some women have taken a “one of the girls” route by specializing in subjects that benefit from a “woman’s angle.”

But in becoming “one of the girls,” women may enter into a dangerous bargain—reinforcing stereotypes that restrict them in the first place. Women like Raddatz violate these stereotypes. Which is why, apparently, when she delivers bravura journalistic performances, Howard Kurtz sits at his computer and writes about it. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.