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Women make a difference in media

It is late afternoon in Namibia and a current affairs programme at Base FM is about to go on air. Namibian singing sensation Stella Kavendjii breezes in unannounced, baby in her arms, and does an impromptu interview on her new album about HIV and AIDS. Such is the homely atmosphere at this woman-led community radio station that if anyone has an issue, they come in and chat about it.
Stella Kavendjii
Profiled as part of the recently released study "Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Media", Base FM, formerly Katutura Community Radio station, is rooted in a community in which, as reporter Jehoiackim Kateve puts it, “HIV is a reality, not just a story.”

In the "Glass Ceiling" research, which presents data and findings from 126 media houses in the region, women and men provide examples of how women, especially at a senior level, change newsroom culture and impact positively on coverage. This is particularly true when it comes to covering social and community issues, and giving equal voice to women.

When asked why gender equality is an issue in newsrooms, almost half of the women (45%) and men (39%) cited both equal rights and the different perspectives that women bring as being the main reasons why media houses should be concerned about gender equality. Women and men (69% and 62% respectively) also believe strongly that female journalists are more likely to cover gender-related topics, and that where women are in senior management positions, gender is likely to be taken seriously.

Alex Samuel, a senior staff member at Base FM, explains that the station has gone national, but still has its base in Katutura, Windhoek's largest township. “What is distinct about Base FM is that we cater for all types. We have music, activities, talk shows, discussions about HIV and AIDS. We cater for the youth. We are in tune with the community. We are demand driven.”

Of the 22 staff, ten are women, including the head of the station. Does this make a difference? “Sandra (Williams) brings special qualities,” says Samuel. “She places a strong emphasis on team work; compromise; forgiveness. She is a leader with motherly qualities. She creates room for openness.”

Teetee Zwane, editor of the "Business Desk" at the Swazi Observer agrees that women and men bring different perspectives to the table. “Compassionate news has been ignored for a long time. We haven't had that human feel to news. We need that female voice to push all that into the media.”

She further adds, “No one has had the passion for issues important to women, and without the media creating awareness of these we will be a long way from gender equality. We have pushed these stories (abuse, HIV/AIDS) and are making people aware. But it's always a female reporter.”

On the other hand, there are also clear signs that some men are beginning to take gender seriously, especially when encouraged by women managers. Both women (78%) and a large percentage of men (87%) interviewed believed that “men can be as gender aware as women.”

Base FM's award-winning journalist Kateve describes how working under a woman manager in a community radio station turned him into a gender activist. It all started when a woman being followed by a man with a knife late one night phoned the station for help, and he rushed to the scene where the proverbial might of the pen towered over the sword.

In a community wracked by gender violence, Kateve has become a favourite among women in the community, frequently called on to report on cases that the police turn a blind eye to. Calling himself the “reporter who does not sleep,” Kateve says the notion of the dispassionate journalist is foreign to this station. “We are a media that mediates,” he says. “We go out to make a difference.”

Pat Made, gender activist and Gender Links board member based in Zimbabwe.
In February 2004, Ferial Haffajee became the first woman of colour to head a leading South African paper, the Mail and Guardian, and the third female editor in the country. For five years, Haffajee steered the paper to greater heights before moving on to become editor-in-chief of the weekly City Press.

Statistics from the latest South African Glass Ceiling report confirm that under Haffajee's stewardship, the Mail and Guardian attained gender parity at the top and in senior management positions. Women began cropping up regularly on the front page, and in photos and headlines inside the paper.

Rapule Tabane, now deputy editor-in-chief, joined the Mail and Guardian as senior political reporter in 2003. “I thought of myself as pretty progressive, but when I started looking at our front page, I learned how often we didn't have women there,” Tabane said. “Ferial made us think about sections that only reflected men. Once you have this consciousness, you make an effort to look for women sources and photos.”

Colleen Morna Lowe, executive director of Gender Links.
Perhaps one of the most telling indicators of Haffajee's stewardship is the extent to which she not only grew the circulation of the paper by 25% in the last five years, but also its woman readership. According to marketing manager Anastacia Martin, female readership rose from 33% to 40%.

To put these figures in context, the 2005 Gender and Media Audience study conducted by GL and the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network, showed that more South African men (21%) than women (15%) rely on newspapers as their main source of news. Across the globe, the gender gap in newspaper readership is pronounced. For the Mail and Guardian to have grown its female readership under a female editor, and to be edging towards gender parity, is a major feather in Haffajee's cap.

This growing awareness that a gender approach is good for business is apparent throughout the region. Apolinary Tairo, assistant news editor at Tanzania Media Express Ltd's newspaper observed, “in the areas of sources, our female reporters are able to access sources who refuse to be interviewed by our male reporters. This is particularly so with politicians, who believe male reporters work in cahoots with the politicians' competitors. Women make good business for the company, because the products they produce are very popular with our readers.”

Although women in media clearly make a difference when it comes to balanced coverage, the "Glass Ceiling" research found that the sector is still largely male-dominated. Men constitute 59% of employees, but also dominate the actual production of media content, including editorial (58%), design (69%), production (70%), printing and distribution (76%) and technical/IT (84%) departments in the region's media houses. Women also occupy only a little of a quarter of those in senior management.

Given that it is clear that women bring so much to media, there is a need for media houses to further develop policies and programmes to nurture and retain female talent. Not only will this mean a better brand of journalism, but, like the new women readers of the Mail and Guardian, will mean more media consumers as women find news and information that really speaks to their interests.
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About the author

Edited by Colleen Lowe Morna and Pat Made, this article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, excerpted from Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Media. Colleen is executive director of Gender Links (, a southern African organisation committed to promoting gender equality in and through the media, and Pat is a gender activist and GL board member based in Zimbabwe. Email GL editor Deborah Walter on .