Johannesburg — IT was an interesting, though provoking media discussion that was called to debate the role of women in the media.
The theme of the media forum, which brought together journalists and media personnel from across the continent, was 'Women in Media: Does having a seat at the table equate to a voice?'
The Graça Machel Trust Women in Media Network, CNN and M-Net organised the discussion, which was aimed at challenging the way women and children are represented in the media as well as delve into the social, cultural and economic reasons, women have less than 24 percent voice in the media.
The discussion explored why women are mostly portrayed in stereotypical roles that do not reflect their voice, views, achievements and contributions to society in a balanced and informed way.
It was an interactive discussion that brought to fore comments from male journalists that almost sent tempers flaring among the audience, especially from female journalists.
The panel, which was moderated by CNN journalist Eleni Giokos, included an investment professional Andia Chakava, SiMODiSA managing director Matsi Modise, M-Net Zambezi Magic Channel content executive Kwangu Liwewe and AllAfrica Global Media executive director and co-founder Amadou Mahtar Ba.
Kicking off the discussion was a video message from founder of the Graça Machel Trust, Graça Machel, calling for acknowledgement that the visibility of women in the media remains a stubborn challenge.
According to Mrs Machel, this is despite the achievements and progress that have been recorded in the media industry. She said female journalists have to be recognised in leading positions in media organisations and considered in careers prospects.
"Women have to be present in a meaningful way when development or economic issues are reported on. Africa and the world need to see the faces and hear the voices of successful women entrepreneurs, leading scientists, innovators and community builders," she said.
Mrs Machel envisaged that such conversations would become a wave of change to open a new reality; one that reflected balanced stories told in ways that women want and deserve their stories to be told.
"Let us embrace the spirit and tap into a wealth of knowledge, expertise and take a decisive step towards redefining a voice and a place for women in the media," she said.
AllAfrica Global Media executive director and co-founder Mr Mahtar Ba said Africa would benefit US$28 trillion by 2025 towards the gross domestic product (GDP) by creating space for them to contribute and empowering them.
He said influence plays a critical role not only in the newsroom but also in society as a whole.
And responding to a comment from one of the journalists who claimed that the challenge with female journalists is that they concentrate on soft news, Mr Mahtar Basaid there is nothing wrong with women or men specialising in soft news.
"The world as we know it today needs more of soft news. Secondly, there is a lot to be said on the barriers that prevent women from excelling. Women journalists need to be supported and it starts in the marriages, families and to the newsroom," he said.
And M-Net Zambezi Magic Channel content executive Ms Liwewe said mentorship is important for women journalists.
She observed that although it is difficult for female journalists to rise in the media, it is important for them to remain focused, committed and passionate about what they do, especially in the absence of mentorship programmes.
On the issue of female journalists preferring soft news over hard news such politics and business, Ms Liwewe said it is vital to recognise that most newsrooms are male-dominated and that assignment supervisors, who are mostly male, are the ones who assign female journalists to go in the field and opt to give male journalists hard news assignments.
"Journalists do not assign themselves, they wait to be assigned by their mostly male supervisors and they are the ones who decide which reporter covers which assignment. There is no level playing field in most newsrooms," she said.
And Investment professional Ms Chakava said it is regrettable that perceptions from investors are that women are only in business for subsistence purposes.
"Yes, women can make themselves feel better when it comes to representation. But having a seat on the table does not necessarily equate to having a voice. There is an attitude problem, a cultural problem. What are human resources departments doing when people are complaining about the lack of promotions in their departments, and lack of access to very important roles?" Ms Chakava said.
She said there is need to expose organisations that do not recognise women as the trend is unacceptable.
"Journalists have the power to bring on the change they want to see not only in the newsroom but in society as a whole," she said.
SiMODiSA managing director Ms Modise said women can only have a voice when they have influence. She said it is not enough to be at the table and have a voice without being influential.
Ms Modise said there is need to create a sense of nurturing to inspire women in the newsroom to get to the top.
"I am at the table and I have a voice. You only have a voice when you have influence," she said.
Shockingly, however, were the comments which continued coming from male journalists and negative perceptions about the female journalists.
Some of the male journalists accused the female journalists of being lazy and lacking initiative, while others were of the view that hiring women is costly as they tend to leave work and go on maternity leave at the expense of their employers.
And even when confronted with facts on how women, despite working in sometimes harsh and unfavourable conditions, work twice as hard as men and yet are overlooked when it comes to promotions, some of the male journalists maintained their stance.
Renee Ngamau, a journalist from Kenya and also a Graça Machel Trust Women In Media Network champion challenged male journalists to state what they bring to the table when hired, besides being qualified.
"Why should female journalists be asked about what they bring to the table? Women only need to come in by virtue of the fact that we are qualified. For women to get to a place where men get easily, we overcome a lot of hurdles," she said.
Ms Ngamau said women suffer three forms of discrimination, especially in broadcast media.
"Besides being female, age is also an issue; you have to have a certain face and sound. That is not the case for male journalists. Even opportunities moving up are not equal.
"In most newsrooms, a lot happens to female journalists for them to be in certain positions. Usually, it is about who you have to be 'friendly' with before you can get a promotion or you have to have a certain face. We have to stop sexualising the newsroom," she said.
By the end of the session, however, one thing was clear, male journalists failed to recognise female journalists as equal partners who work just as hard and sometimes twice as hard to be recognised. Women will continue being sidelined.
And like one of panellists said, maybe it is up to female journalists themselves to start the conversation and push not only to have a level playing field, but also recognition in the role they play in the newsrooms.
By Kapala Chisunka