Business of News

More risk, less pay: Why the gender gap matters more for foreign reporters

January 19, 2018
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When Carrie Gracie resigned from her post as the BBC’s China Editor last week in protest over the company’s failure to close its gender pay gap, her exit sparked a global conversation about how far the media industry has, or hasn’t, come, particularly with regard to foreign correspondents.

It’s certainly not the first time pay inequality has come up in the media industry, but the conversation has usually centered on the industry’s most prestigious positions. When New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson left the paper in 2014, it came out that her salary was considerably less than that of her male predecessor. And even six months after the BBC was forced to publish the salaries of its top earners—revealing a clear gendered disparity—the public scrutiny still wasn’t enough to pressure the company into addressing the problem.

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In a scathing open letter published January 7, Gracie criticized the BBC for miring women who’ve spoken up in a bureaucratic complaints process, and called on star presenters to speak up about unequal pay not only for themselves, but for women and minorities working in lesser-paid jobs at the bottom of the company.

But what about the people working in some of the most dangerous jobs in journalism?

Correspondents in the Middle East often deal with physical and psychological trauma, and require special training to work safely in hostile environments—and this can make it all the more complicated to determine what constitutes fair pay and equal treatment. Most do it out of dedication to translating a complex and often misunderstood part of the world for an international audience—not for the money.

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CJR spoke with several correspondents, editors, and bureau chiefs working in the Middle East to understand how the role of women has evolved in the field, and how much further there is to go.


Landing the job is just the beginning

The issue is no longer simply equal representation of women, but whether the journalism industry rewards equal work with equal pay, and whether it’s doing enough to address long-standing problems with parity.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and when I first started…there were very, very few women in the field,” says Washington Post Beirut Bureau Chief Liz Sly. “When women started getting into the field in the ’90s, they were being admitted as a special favor. Then, the inclination was not to push too hard on the salary, that perhaps if you did, they would just go for the man.”

“I think Carrie Gracie has opened the conversation a lot. It’s a sort of a ‘Me Too’ moment on the financial level,” Sly adds.

A correspondent for a major British newspaper in the Middle East, who declined to speak on the record, tells CJR that when she recently compared her salary with a male counterpart the region, she was “horrified” at the result:

“He is the same age as me, we started together at the same time, and have the same experience and current living situation. Between salary and living allowance, it turned out he was on something like $26,000 a year more than me,” she says.

After raising the issue through the company’s grievance process, she says, her salary was revised to equal that of her male colleague.

Transparent, or invisible?

It’s a solution that doesn’t exist for women who don’t know what their colleagues are making. Industry standards for pay also vary widely across organizations and mediums, which makes it hard to measure the gender gap precisely, and particularly for freelancers.

Freelance journalists, who typically negotiate payment on a per-story basis, tell CJR that rates are equally low for everyone, regardless of gender, but that it can be difficult to get the attention of editors at international media outlets.

“You have to fight for your stories when you are a female in the Middle East,” says Luna Safwan, a Beirut-native freelancer, “and to convince a male supervisor that you can do it has always been much more challenging for me. Foreigners coming to report in the region are given more opportunities, because their editors know them already.”

“Journalists coming from Middle Eastern backgrounds and those coming from other parts of the world are definitely not treated equally,” Safwan adds. “I can point out a lot of examples where local journalists are very experienced and excellent in reporting and are not given half of the opportunities that are given to foreigners.”

That’s a challenge that disproportionately affects women, since there are such a high number of them in leading correspondent roles in the Middle East. “At least since the middle of the 2000s, and definitely after 2011 and the Arab Spring, women have filled perhaps a majority of the prominent jobs in foreign corresponding in the Middle East,” says Sly. “Here in Beirut, most of the bureau chiefs are women, and I think you can say that there is considerably more representation of women in the Middle East.”

“The constant observation that there are a lot of women correspondents in the Middle East tells you that there isn’t yet parity or equality in the job,” Sly adds “I’d like to see the day when nobody comments at all on the gender of the journalist.”

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Generation gap

“There may be plenty of women doing incredible reporting,” says Anna Lekas Miller, a correspondent for the Associated Press in Iraq, “but men are still the ones who hold positions of power.”

Women entering the field today are competing with men who have decades of experience, and who came into the industry at a time that was much less accepting of women.

Sly recalls her first foreign assignment, for The Chicago Tribune, in 1991: “One of the top editors said to me as I left, in person, ‘Whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t get pregnant.’ And he explained, ‘It makes us very unhappy that we invest all this money in sending a woman overseas for her to just get pregnant.’ Now, you couldn’t get away with that these days.”  

It’s also a misconception that women are always the ones who leave their careers to start a family, says Laura King, a former bureau chief for the Associated Press in the Middle East. “Not as many women have kids out in conflict zones as other regions—although there are some—but the men are much more likely to be family guys,” King tells CJR.

“With the rise of the dual-income family, men tend not to apply for those jobs because it wouldn’t suit what their wife or partner is doing,” she says, “whereas you get a lot of single women applying for those jobs in the Middle East.”


Hazard pay

Not only in the office, but in the field, women have to put up with additional on-the-job hazards because of their gender, ranging from uncomfortable to dangerous.

“We work really hard,” says Lizzie Porter, a freelance reporter based in Beirut. “Not to say that male journalists don’t—but it’s just that we face extra challenges that a male wouldn’t.”

“In the course of reporting,” she adds, “I have had to deal with people who think I am somehow doing this to look for a husband, or that I’m on a date when I’m interviewing them, even when I’m as clear about that as possible and extremely professional in the way I conduct myself.”

“In conflict situations, we’re the only woman in the room sometimes, and that puts us in a very, very vulnerable situation, and often you’re not totally in control of when you leave—that’s a risk you’re willing to take, on some level,” says Miller. “Women have to navigate this, and men just have no idea.”

“When you discuss it with men, they don’t say, That’s awful, they just say, Oh…,” Sly says. “They’re not quite on the same wavelength.”

“When an editor is concerned about you being in a dangerous place as a mother—would they express that concern about a man being in a dangerous place as a father?” a veteran reporter for a major US newspaper asks.

Wrong direction

Globally, the gender pay gap widened in 2016—an OECD report made a “stark call to action” that progress in closing that gap in the world’s 35 most developed countries has been “far too slow.”

Studies of journalists’ salaries conducted by the guilds that represent staff at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal found a 14 to 15 percent gap in the average salaries of women and men. That’s about on par with the gender inequality across 446 professions in the United States.

“There’s definitely a lot of concern about pay parity,” a bureau chief in a Middle Eastern capital for a major US newspaper tells CJR. “We just don’t know, because there’s no transparency. This hasn’t generated any sense of outrage, or any of the editors saying, Oh my God, we’re not paying our staff equally! We need to step up and do that!

So what can be done?

Journalists who spoke to CJR said they would like to see male colleagues step up and be allies, because they’ve been speaking up on their own for so long.

“Men can do a lot with each other, especially with each other,” says Miller. “At best, I am extremely annoyed, and in serious danger at worst. So take it seriously when someone complains, even if it’s just to listen.”

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Shawn Carrié is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul covering conflict, migration, and culture in the Middle East. His work has been published in Newsweek, VICE, and Public Radio International. Follow him on Twitter @shawncarrie ‏.