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Don’t Tweet me this way - NUJ women's conference 2012

3 July 2012

"Journalism is one of the best jobs in the world," Bidisha, Guardian columnist and broadcaster, told an NUJ's women's conference on the media. The aim of the meeting was to address sexism in the media and how trade unionists can respond.

For many women, however, it is a world where they face discrimination, with male colleagues getting paid more and where they get passed over for promotion by men. It is a world where woman are judged by their looks; once the wrinkles start, the work dries up.

The 2012 NUJ women's conference, entitled "Don't Tweet me this way – still sexist and not just on paper", heard about the experience of many female journalists and bloggers who find themselves victims of the vile, sexually-violent invective of internet trolls.

Bidisha knows all about it. She said:

"It is pollution and must be stopped."

Her advice was to never reply to the remarks and, where possible, to "out" the perpetrators publically.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said:

"We also need to make sure that online editors take action against these people. They would not print these vile rants in the newspaper, so why do they let they them remain on the web?"

Newsrooms can be bullying environments where the plum jobs are given to men and sexism is rife. And, in these economically straitened times, it is one where women find becoming pregnant is seen virtually as a crime.

Bidisha reminded the meeting how women have progressed in recent years: they are now editing national papers, becoming executive producers and getting a toe-hold in media groups' management. She said:

"There is still some way to go. But, you know, the thing is that women are now less afraid to stand up against the discrimination. By working together we can agitate and stand up against the bullies. By working collectively we can ensure that the kids coming in to the industry don't have to put up with this shit."

Fiona Cowood, features director of Cosmopolitan magazine, told the meeting about their campaign aimed at their young women readers challenging them to use the F*word – feminism. It challenges the notion that you have to wear dungarees to stick up for women's rights.

It points out that the world is far from equal and there is still a lot to fight for. It is calling for all companies which employ more than 250 workers to do an equal-pay audit. Sadly, the magazine's owner, Hearst, has so far declined to do so.

Scarlett Harris, the TUC's Women's Equality Officer, explained how the present recession is hitting women hard. Female unemployment, at 1.2 million, is the highest for 25 years and many women are finding themselves working – not by choice – part time.

Ros Bragg, director of the charity Maternity Action, said that calls to their helpline, from women being bullied for being pregnant, or being denied their statutory rights, had dramatically increased. She said that government proposals to change maternity rights – making some of the time parental rights so that fathers can take time off – were fraught with danger.

She said:

"The changes will not result in more fathers taking it and women losing important rights. We are also concerned that it could result in employers stopping to provide occupational pay."

The media itself plays a major role in fashioning perceptions of women, where "images of women are used to sell anything from toothpaste to insurance."

Camilla Palmer represented Miriam O'Reilly, the BBC presenter who was sacked by the BBC and replaced by younger presenters. Despite winning the case and the BBC admitting it was in the wrong and apologising, Miriam is still not getting any work. The statistics show that of the TV workforce over 50, 9 per cent are women and 24 per cent are men.

Camilla Parker said:

"The case was a landmark victory. It challenged the notion that women have to be 'wrinkle-free, thin and beautiful' to be on TV, while wrinkles in men give them gravitas. We will now be seeking assurances from the new director general of the BBC that this attitude will stop."

Two women a week are murdered by their husband or partner and 45 per cent of women have suffered sexual harassment, with more than 1 million serious incidents a year.

Helen Goodman MP, Labour's media spokesperson, said she believed there was a link between the statistics and the glamorisation of sexual violence and portrayal of women as sexual objects in lad-mags and other publications.

The media also plays a role in the way it reports women's issues. Shanon Harvey manages the AVA – Against Abuse & Violence Stella Project. She said that papers still peddled the myth that most rapes were perpetrated by strangers, over-emphasised false accusations and suggested that women who were raped following drinking binges "were asking for it".

She said newspapers should be more honest in the language they use. For example, in the Rochdale grooming case it was reported that the men gave the girls drink and presents in return for sex.

"No, they raped them."

Pragna Patel, a founding member of the Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, talked about the reporting of honour killings in the press.

Too often all violence against South Asian women is lumped together as honour killings and put in the context of a malfunctioning culture. She said:

"The aim is often to titillate rather than portray the truth."

However, she said, honour killings do exist and they and the threat of them are used to shore up patriarchal power. The term must be "unpacked" if it is to explain the political context of this violence; sloppy reporting will have a negative effect on the policy response to the problem.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, director of UK Black Pride and PCS Equality Officer, said:

"There is no hierarchy of inequality. Without equality you can't have diversity. But we as women are strong and we can fight."

Quoting Desmond Tutu, she said that those who are neutral in time of injustice have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Michelle Stanistreet pulled together the contributions and called for women in the workplace to organise and use their collective force to challenge unequal pay, bullying, discrimination and challenge the way news is reported.

As one rep said:

"We need a critical mass of indignation."

Some of the specific ideas coming out of the event included:

  • The NUJ should promote more women and women's issues
  • The union should increase women's involvement in NUJ chapels and branches
  • Start online women's network on the new NUJ website
  • Hold an NUJ women's conference in Ireland and consider similar events in Scotland and Wales.

Bidisha would like to hear from people if they want to describe instances of specific and systemic sexism, discrimination, silencing and marginalisation in their places of work and in major organisations, you can email:

For further information:

Materials available on the day included:

The NUJ is continuing to ask for women member's for their views and experiences of working in the media industry.

The union launched a survey is spring 2012 and below are quotes taken from the survey responses. The survey results and analysis will be published later this year.

"People who start work have no idea how much harder it was in the '80s. For example, in hotels a single business woman travelling was often assumed to be some sort of prostitute and, if you went down for dinner, they put you behind a pillar at the back of the restaurant unless you complained. Random approaches from men who would be quite surprised when you explained you were in a city to host a press conference, not sleep with them..."
"The first time was when, as a final-year student, I had a trainee interview and the interviewers were sitting on their desks swinging their legs, asked me why they should go to the bother and expense of training me when chances were I would just get married, have children and leave the profession."
"Recently three senior women have been made redundant leaving mostly men at the top."
"I feel there is a bit of an old boys' club in my newspaper. Jobs are not advertised and senior management regularly give contracts to journalists with a professional or personal connection to them. Nine times out of ten, these new contracts are given to male journalists."
"…my male boss left the company for a competitor… I was the only other member of staff in the department, which was a new business… I had more work and publishing experience… I knew all the systems, all the authors, had shown innovation and set up new business ideas, and would undoubtedly be able to do his job. Our director's first reaction to the situation was 'keep things ticking over, don't worry about the profits, just keep things going until we can find someone to take his place, don't worry if it doesn't go well, just do what you can'. It never occurred to him that I might be able to do the job… I suspected the reason I was overlooked was because I was a woman, where there had been a very ambitious, alpha male in the role before."
"I am in no doubt that women's status at work is at an all-time low… men secure the full-time, highly paid jobs and women have the part-time and casual work… I feel strongly, too, that there needs to be some sort of safety net for those of us who are getting older, who have virtually no company pension and who'll have to work till we drop."
"…my career went swimmingly well until I had children. My previous reputation and good record and achievements seemed to be wiped out during my maternity leave… I got no credit for the things I had done, and upon my return I had to build my reputation again. I was also repeatedly turned down for flexible working… a final request for flexible working was met with the offer of a much lower paid three-day a week temporary position covering someone else's maternity leave… there seemed to be an unofficial rule to have no part-timers in key positions."
"When I started out as a junior reporter in magazines, I was sacked because I very definitely refused the creepy ad director's interest in me. I then found it difficult to get other work… when I did, people either treated me as a 'sweet little thing' that made tea and was pleasant to everyone or if I did well and was complimented, colleagues thought it was just because I was a woman and must have slept with someone. I was not treated seriously."
"…the worst possible example… where a new boss's seniority (and the night shift element of working hours) was abused. In retrospect I was particularly foolish – I wasn't the only female reporter to meet him for 'a littler chat about work' after hours in a nearby pub, we regularly held our forward planning and post mortem meetings in the same venue… but I was the last, non-driving, female reporter to be dropped off at home by him and felt emotionally blackmailed into letting him come into my apartment for a coffee as he pointed out he faced a long journey home. What happened made me leave the company. He covered his tracks. The one colleague I told didn't believe me."

Tags: , women, sexism, equality, twitter, new media