Press in the South

BY Akhileshwari| IN Media Practice | 15/07/2004
Telugu and Kannada journalism have at least a 30-year history of recruiting women journalists even if they have been very few.

Extracted from  Status of Women Journalists in India, produced  by the Press Institute of India, under the aegis of the National Commission for Women

Akhileshwari

In the regional language journalism in the four southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, only Kannada has two women journalist-editors who reached the top from the ranks, one each for a daily and a magazine. There is also a woman assistant editor in a Kannada daily. In Tamil, a ¿working journalist¿ is the editor of a Tamil magazine while there are none in theTelugu and Malayalam press. Although there are women at senior positions (exactly one in Telugu and one in Malayalam) in other languages, there are no women editors.

Reporting remains a male preserve although youngsters are breaching it in all the four languages. Women might be reporting and interviewing people for articles, but it is only occasionally and out of personal interest. They are basically appointed to the desk and are full time sub editors. While there are no women journalists outside the metropolitan cities or state capitals, in Kannada one finds women as district correspondents. In Telugu although there are newspapers that publish editions from the district headquarters, women are absent in editorial areas.

Telugu and Kannada journalism have at least a 30-year history of recruiting women journalists even if they have been very few. While Kannada women journalists did election surveys, in Andhra women journalists as far back as the mid-70s were doing the night shift. The mainstream Malayalam press had an unwritten law on not recruiting women while the ideological dailies did employ a few, all of them on the desk. Even today the Tamil press has the least number of women in comparison to the other languages in the south. 

The language dailies have followed the English press in recruiting women for their features desk as most have a daily a supplement. The opportunities in ?soft writing? have opened up the newspapers to women since they are believed to be good in writing features. This also involves reporting, mostly on non-political issues. While this is true of the Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam press, the strong presence of magazines in Tamil has prevented the Tamil dailies from providing space for feature pages and colour supplements and thus opportunities for women in newspapers are very few.

In total contrast to the situation in the regional press, English language press is literally teeming with women especially in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad where papers like Times of India, Deccan Herald (of Bangalore), The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle (of Hyderabad) have a strong presence. In Trivandrum, the Malayalam press dominates and the circulation of English papers is comparatively small. In Bangalore and Hyderabad the English newspapers employ women in large numbers and they occupy important positions such as editor, chief reporter, chief sub editor. Generally women are concentrated in features and Sunday magazine sections. Occasionally women are reporters on the crime beat but rarely do they do politics and legislature reporting. There are half dozen women correspondents of outstation English papers in all the capital cities in the south and they invariably cover politics too. They have been appointed because of their seniority and at times because they work for news magazines which requires feature writing too and so the preference for women. 

Women in English Press

Women in the English language press do not have the same problems as their sisters in the language press. They are better paid, and even if on contract, have better facilities at workplace, have toilets and washrooms, get transport back home after night shift, get maternity leave and various perks and privileges. (Andhra Jyoti, a Telugu daily of Andhra, has a common toilet for men and women while Malayalam Manorama had to find space to build toilets for women when they began to recruit women a few years ago).

There are several women at mid-level and senior level in The Hindu -- women who worked themselves up from the ranks to the position of deputy editors, special correspondents, chief sub editors and so on. The Indian Express has had a long tradition of employing women as reporters many of whom have risen to the position of chief reporter. So also in Deccan Herald of Bangalore where women have been assistant editors, chief reporters, foreign correspondent, special correspondent, chief sub editor. Deccan Chronicle has a woman editor while Times of India has a woman bureau chief in Bangalore.

Nirmala Laxman, Associate Editor of The Hindu, said there had been a 25-30 per cent increase in women¿s intake in the organisation but she believes there has to be a concerted effort to recruit women.

Quite a few women believe there is no discrimination and no glass ceiling in major English language papers. However, there is a tendency to push women into feature writing and even non-serious writing such as reporting parties and social events. The feature desks in The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle and Deccan Herald are all-women affairs. Some women believe this ?ghettoisation? of women, and keeping them out of ?mainstream? ¿newspapering¿ does no good for their future in journalism. Ammu Joseph for instance points out that an acknowledged tendency among girls is to focus on serious issues but with more jobs in non-serious journalism, the girls tend to be herded into celebrity and lifestyle journalism. Like the women¿s columns or women¿s clubs of earlier times, women tend to get bogged down in their features sections.

Sudha Ramachandran, former Assistant Editor of Deccan Herald, who is perhaps the only woman who writes on a regular basis from home for DH even after quitting it, believes that women should get into the mainstream of the paper. ?Let them stop sitting in the supplements; politics is the core of the newspaper; they should do more politics,? she says. Also she says women should insist on a level playing field because whenever women play wimpy they damage other women¿s cause.

Women journalists in English newspapers believe that they are at a disadvantage compared to men because they do not politick or network. They are not ?glass-mates? nor do they have ?bar-room bonding.? So they lose out in terms of promotions and prized assignments. Even when in senior positions, women lose out in power struggles because they do not or cannot use their power as they are not used to it. Another reason why women in senior and decision making positions admit they do not use their power is because the system does not enable or empower women.

Being emotional too they get easily upset and so prefer to avoid any kind of confrontation as it impacts upon their performance. This kind of being loners, keeping away from others¿ concerns also makes women indifferent to standing by their colleagues or friends during times of crisis like sexual or personal harassment. They prefer not to get embroiled because they are fearful of the consequences. In two instances of sexual harassment in Deccan Chronicle of Hyderabad, women colleagues of the women harassed did not support them. Nor did the women colleagues stand by a senior woman in Praja Vani, a Kannada daily from Bangalore when she was personally harassed for more than a year forcing her to resign. If there is a network or a group or greater camaraderie then they could develop enough mental strength to fight for a cause. Another solution could be to get more and more women on a newspaper¿s rolls so that there would be strength in numbers. 

Wages and Contract System

Women might have been well off in the English lagnuage press in terms of salaries and other perks compared to the regional language press but with the contract system becoming a norm now, women seem to be getting short-changed. They do not know how to read a contract, or how to negotiate. They have no idea of the benefits they can get or perks they should demand. They tend to accept what is offered and end up getting lessthan their male colleagues who are junior to them or do not get normal benefits like leave, reimbursements, Provident Fund and so on.

In the regional press, especially in Telugu newspapers, no pay scales are prevalent, neither for women nor men. They are paid consolidated amounts, even in vouchers in some cases. In the case of leading newspaper groups like Eenadu, differential scales are given for employees working in different magazines. Only a handful of senior people get the Wage Board pay scales. Gradually all the newspapers are opting for the contract system for new recruits.  In Andhra Jyoti, a Telugu daily, that changed hands and was revived a year ago after closure for a few years, every person negotiates salary personally. Almost all the 12/14 women took what was offered to them. At least half of them work for less than what they were earning earlier or less than their male colleagues who are junior to them in the profession.

The situation seems better in other languages in the south but the contract system is seen as a bane in the English newspapers. The Hindu seems to be the only organisation that continues to recruit people on Wage Board scales. Women are not clear about the implications of the contract system, what to ask and what to expect as they are being pressurised to move to the contract system. In fact, a senior woman journalist wondered if the substantial number of women in senior positions in English newspapers was due to the fact that the managements got them cheap!  

Marriage, Maternity and Domestic Responsibilities

The biggest burden on women in journalism is their domestic responsibilities as wife, mother and daughter-in-law. The brightest and most successful journalists have left a bright career to settle down in matrimony or have moved to less demanding jobs when children arrive. For women, almost invariably, the home comes first. A T Jayanti editor of Deccan Chronicle, believes that as home is always a woman¿s responsibility it naturally affects her work. ?I have no problem with any girl until she marries,? she says. For most of them, home comes first whatever the concessions given, says Jayanti.

Most girls, even in the middle class, urban, educated families, fettered by conventions and customs of society, find it difficult to break out of constraints imposed on them.  Women editors both in English and language press have admitted to being extra considerate and going the extra mile to retain women on their rolls especially the brighter ones but often they fail because the girls are hesitant to break out of the mould into which they have been cast. The biggest problem they believe is that the girls have no clear picture of what they want, of what their dreams are for themselves or where their future lies. So they get pressurised by their parents to opt for marriage or by in-laws and husbands to quit the newspapers and opt for ¿routine¿ jobs where they will have regular timings, no pressures of deadlines and no great expectations of them.

Women across the four states said they were ?successful? when backed by cooperative husbands or kind mothers-in-law. Others depended on their mothers to help them out when office pressures increased.

Vasantalakshmi, features editor of Andhra Jyoti, says that before marriage girls take great interest in their work, even moving house near the office or ask parents or brothers to pick them up after late shift. However, once they marry and have children, they shift to other departments or drop out of the profession because of the responsibility they feel for their children. They feel guilty and this affects their self-esteem. If women can afford it financially, they prefer to opt out of the profession. Some do want to return after the children grow up but there are not many opportunities.

Quite a few women especially in the English language press have put off having children in favour of their careers. Most women who took a break to bring up children or even those who stayed home for a few months to have children believe they lost out on growth and promotions. Some women even lose their jobs as maternity leave is not available to them. Quite a few women especially in the English language press put off marriage and children either to stabilise professionally or because of the demands of the job.

Some organisations go out of the way to be considerate to women with young children but mostly women are on their own where children are concerned. Young mothers would like child care facilities in their workplace so that they can concentrate on their work instead of worrying about leaving the kid with an unreliable maid or a cr裨e. Some suggested that organisations should consider having child care facilities not just for women employees but also for men as it would go a long way in building an enabling atmosphere for new and young mothers and fathers. 

Promotions

Promotions are rare in both the English language and the regional press and no newspaper organisation has any transparent system of assessing performance. The result is that promotions are arbitrary and capricious, giving rise to frustration. There are instances of women not having been promoted even in 10-15 years or being promoted only once in a career of 20 years. There is no policy of promotion in any organisation. While The Hindu promotes everyone across the line every few years, its financial daily has introduced a system of performance assessment wherein two best stories of the day are rated. While this is expected to give instant recognition and reward to the staffers and encourage them, some believe that it does not take into consideration that stories depend on the kind of beat one is given. Also this system ignores the performance of the desk. In organisations where women are in good numbers they say there is equal opportunity in writing and reporting assignments but not in promotions. In fact while a woman journalist said ?discrimination? against women was an ?archaic? thing, K H Savitri, editor of the Kannada magazine Karmaveera said it will take at least 20 years for the regional press to match the facilities and opportunities for women in the English language press.

Nirmala Lakshman of The Hindu believes there is hope for women in journalism. ?But the biggest hope for us is the younger generation of men who are more gender-sensitive,? she said.

Contact: pii@ndf.vsnl.net.in 

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