"When I joined the Times of India in the early 1980s, women did not figure in any organisational concerns. The chairs were too high, there were no rest rooms and the general attitude was - why is she here and not in Femina?" says one of India's best-known women journalists, Mrinal Pande. Almost 20 years later, although several Indian women have made a mark in hard news reporting, and there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of women journalists in the country, many women in the profession continue to get a raw deal.
The recently released `Status of Women Journalists in India' report, commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW), presents a disturbing picture of women journalists. Prepared by the Press Institute of India (PII), this report is the first such attempt in the country to look at the harsh reality - for women - in this often glamourised profession. PII's National Study Group (NSG), consisting of media representatives from across the country, approached 3,500 women journalists working for 141 newspapers and publications (including several regional language dailies and magazines) for the preparation of this report. However, only 410 women responded.
In the conflict-ridden northeastern part of the country, only 35 women work as print journalists in the seven states. Only 35 per cent of these are full-time employees; 40 per cent say they have never been promoted. The 'secret' contract system, in which none of the journalists know what the others are getting, is often used to play one journalist against the other.
Chayamuni Bhuyan talks about her experience with an established Assamese daily. In 2002, when Bhuyan returned to Guwahati from her US tour (she was chosen along with nine others in the country to cover the 9/11 anniversary functions), she was told she didn't have a job. The newspaper fired her because she was "absent" from work. The management refused to consider all her US stories printed in the very newspaper and did not reimburse her fax bills. Bhuyan could do little: she had worked for three years in the newspaper without an appointment letter!
Women journalists across the country are rarely promoted; some go without a promotion for decades. Where women have been promoted, they have faced trouble and rebellion from male colleagues. A Trivandrum-based journalist says promotions don't come to them because there's no "bar-room bonding" for them as there is for their male colleagues. Another said: "Women journalists are conscientious, diligent and people relate more easily to us. However, male bosses do not give credit for professionalism, instead they speak of women exploiting their gender."
Child care facilities and maternity leave are still not a right in most media organisations. A senior woman journalist from Bihar said that when she returned from her maternity leave she was demoted. Another from MP said she was fired when she left to have a baby. Lekha, who works in a reputed national English magazine, says before her baby arrived, she was considered very "responsible". But after she became a mother, an impression was created that she was not "reliable" anymore.
While a majority of the women respondents said that having children did not affect their professional abilities, they were forced to slow down because of their organisations' bias against working mothers. This bias forces bright women into less paying, less prestigious and often less exciting jobs. Sadly, as Pande comments: "Women's productive years are also their reproductive years."
Despite such odds, the report says, some women have survived and won.
R Poornima, editor of Udayavani, a Kannada daily from Bangalore, is the first woman editor in Kannada mainstream journalism. "No one took us lightly because we were not merely assertive but exceptional in our work and efficient on the desk," she recalls. Loganayiki, editor of Kumudam Snehidhi, a Tamil periodical for women, started her career as a reporter 16 years ago. But even today, her male colleagues are reluctant to accept her as their boss. "Now they know me better, but still the male ego is hurt; men always believe women are inferior."
The report also dwells extensively on the divide between the English and regional language press: women journalists working for dailies in English get a better deal in terms of salaries, job security, facilities and choice of assignments. "This differential treatment is apparent even when the same management brings out both the English and local language daily."
Dr Poornima Advani, Chairperson of NCW, said that despite a Supreme Court order, several media organisations have still not set up the committee required to look into cases of sexual harassment. The report claims that some women have learnt to "manage" sexual harassment instead of seeking redressal. Advani added that despite the small sample size, the report clearly spells out the challenges women journalists in India face, even today. The NCW says another report, on women in the electronic media, will soon follow.