Survey: Gender equity issues in Canadian journalism persist at end of decade

It won’t be a surprise to many that the gender pay gap still exists in Canadian journalism.  A survey conducted by J-Source shows that 42 per cent of surveyed cisgender women, transgender and non-binary journalists don’t think they are paid the same as cisgender men conducting the same work.   These findings have implications for whether…

It won’t be a surprise to many that the gender pay gap still exists in Canadian journalism. 

A survey conducted by J-Source shows that 42 per cent of surveyed cisgender women, transgender and non-binary journalists don’t think they are paid the same as cisgender men conducting the same work.  

These findings have implications for whether these journalists choose to remain in the industry, and under what conditions. 

“Not long,” one reporter said of the length of time she expected to work in the field. “It’s an old boys club in the newsroom. Learned I am paid 70 (per cent) of what they make, and I have more responsibilities.” 

Despite having different experiences, this frustration was common to the stories collected from the nearly 200 cisgender women, transgender and non-binary newsworkers surveyed, and 16 interviewed, for J-Source’s Gender Diversity in Canadian Journalism Project

It also reveals that gender discrimination – when people are given different opportunities on the basis of their gender – remains present in Canadian journalism. Of those journalists to whom the question was applicable, thirty-one per cent said they had experienced gender discrimination from an employer multiple times. The journalists surveyed made clear: gender equity remains an issue in Canadian journalism.

In 2018, the Globe and Mail reported that female hosts at the CBC earn almost 9.5 per cent less than their male colleagues. While the article does not account for transgender and non-binary journalists, research in the United States and Ontario shows that these individuals face barriers across industries, including a difference in pay. 

Sexual misconduct, which describes any non-consensual behaviour that is sexual in nature, continues to be an issue as well. Seven per cent of surveyed journalists to whom the question was applicable submit they had experienced sexual misconduct from an employer more than once. Even more said they had experienced sexual misconduct from a colleague or source.

And despite the relatively low number of transgender and non-binary journalists who responded to the survey – nine respondents are non-binary, three are other genders, two are transgender men, and one is a transgender woman – this project finds that these reporters often face different and heightened challenges from those of the 177 cisgender women who responded.

While Statistics Canada began testing a third option for gender on some of its surveys in 2018, the department told J-Source via email that it does not collect information on the number of transgender and non-binary journalists, so it is not feasible to compare the number of survey respondents by gender to the population of these workers in Canada.

At the same time, other elements of identity, such as race, sexual orientation, class and ability play a role in the working lives of journalists of any gender. 

In particular, journalists of colour involved in this project shared the particular difficulties they face in the Canadian news industry, which are often augmented by their gender. “It compounds that I’m a female and a person of colour,” an interviewed daily news reporter said. These problems are further exacerbated when there is a disproportionately low number of racialized workers in the newsroom, a problem that many journalists identified, especially with respect to Black and Indigenous reporters.

How was this information collected?

In fall 2018, J-Source distributed a survey on social media and through its newsletter to cisgender women, transgender and non-binary journalists in Canada. This survey asked questions about how these individuals experience their work on the basis of their gender, and how they could see Canadian journalism improved. One hundred and ninety-two journalists provided enough information for inclusion in this study, although not all of these participants answered every question. J-Source e-mailed a second survey directly to 400 Canadian news outlets. This questionnaire asked organizations to submit information about the policies and procedures they have in place to deal with gender discrimination and sexual misconduct. J-Source distributed the survey three times over a three-month period. Only five news outlets responded, too few for this article to include. Sixteen journalists and editors were interviewed for this publication. Interviewees completed the survey and spoke on the condition of anonymity, unless they specifically gave consent or permission to be identified. J-Source thanks Tristan and D of the Gender Variant Working Group and The 519 for sharing their insights during the development of the survey.

Many surveyed journalists said they had experienced sexual misconduct more than once during their time in the profession. Excluding respondents to which the questions were “not applicable”, seven per cent submit that they experienced sexual misconduct from an employer multiple times; 13 per cent from a colleague multiple times and 17 per cent from a source multiple times. 

These rates don’t diverge dramatically from the general workforce. A 2018 Insights on Canadian Society report, developed in partnership with Statistics Canada’s Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics, states that 19 percent of women said they’d experienced workplace harassment, 13 per cent said they’d experienced verbal abuse, six per cent said they’d experienced “humiliating behaviour” and three per cent said they had experienced threats, all within the last year. 

The report doesn’t include any analysis specific to transgender and non-binary workers. But research suggests harassment more broadly (types that may not be strictly sexual in nature) is regularly directed towards these groups of  workers. “Approximately 90 (per cent) of transgender and gender variant employees report experiencing workplace harassment and/or violence stemming from their gender identity and expression,” states research compiled by Egale Human Rights Trust. 

J-Source’s survey findings also show that the industry that pursued the stories that ushered in the #MeToo era is not safe from this conduct within its own ranks.  

In some instances, journalists face aggressive gendered abuse from members of the public on social media platforms.

“They targeted me as a woman, as a parent – they targeted my family. A lot of people commented on my partner – why my partner would ever marry me, certainly my kids, my fitness as a mother,” said freelance writer Nora Loreto, recalling the ongoing harassment she’s experienced in response to a viral tweet she posted about the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. 

Her story lines up with recent research on the topic. A 2017 survey from the International Federation of Journalists found that nearly half of women reporters had experienced online abuse and various forms of gender-based violence. A report published by Amnesty International in 2018 suggests that – in different ways – many cisgender women, transgender and non-binary workers experience misogynistic abuse on Twitter.

This conduct impacts certain groups more than others, and is often linked to multiple elements of a person’s identity. “In the case of online violence and abuse, women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LBTI) women, women with disabilities, or non-binary individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms of male and female, will often experience abuse that targets them in unique or compounded ways,” said the report. 

This behaviour impacts affected journalists in a variety of ways, not least in forcing them to reconsider their field of choice. In response to a survey question asking respondents how long they expect to stay in the industry, one journalist submitted, “I hope my entire career. The one aspect that gives me pause is the currently toxic political climate, culminating in online harassment. I certainly don’t get the worst of it in my role, compared to some others, but I find it very frightening.”

As several journalists pointed out, the culture and size of a newsroom impacts workplace treatment. “I think that structure does play a role, but I don’t think that’s exclusive to newsrooms,” said a reporter. “I think it’s easier for abusers to get away with shitty things in a larger organization, especially when you have a structure that has underlings and several layers of informing people.”  She continued, “anytime you have that sort of structure where people might be afraid to speak out because of a fear of repercussion and a fear of being shunned.” 

At the same time, journalists working in small newsrooms, such as those located in rural communities, face their own set of challenges. 

One editor outlined a former role as a journalist in a remote area of Canada.

“It’s me and a computer and an often a front-desk person, that’s about it,” the editor told J-Source. “That’s a different thing too. If you come back from an interview and you’re obviously shaken and you come back to a newsroom with five or six or seven people in it – somebody is going to notice. Somebody is going to look at you and say, ‘oh shit, are you okay?’”

“(W)hen I’m working and a source does something sketchy, I feel more inclined to just ‘deal with it’ because I might be dependant on that person giving me information I need for a story”

These conditions are made worse when journalists are already working in precarious situations, including casual and temporary roles. 

Looking back on a past workplace, another journalist reflected on how that precarity impacted their ability to speak up – on issues related to gender, or other workplace challenges.

“I think that not being a full-time or even part-time permanent but a casual employer (left) me essentially terrified to bring up any issue. You’re scared you’re not going to get called back or get fired if you mess up, and it doesn’t breed a culture of feeling like you can report anything that may have happened.”

While that journalist eventually reported two workplace issues, her story raises questions about the number of workers employed in these types of roles who may have chosen to stay quiet. 

“You’re just desperately trying to hang onto your job,” she said. “You don’t want to make yourself look like a complainer or something like that”. 

This challenge is especially relevant given that cisgender men are more likely to find themselves in standard working arrangements, such as salaried full-time employment, than cisgender women, transgender and non-binary workers.

Fair pay, equal pay

The survey also reveals how these journalists think about their pay and how it compares to that of cisgender men. Of participating journalists, 28 per cent “somewhat agree” with the phrase “I am paid fairly for my work,” while 26 per cent “somewhat disagree.” Only 26 per cent of surveyed journalists think they are paid the same as cisgender men.

Several journalists said deciding to have children contributes to the pay gap. Choosing to parent can affect all journalists. “(Yet) the responsibility is usually on one spouse’s shoulders, and that’s usually the woman,” Loreto said. “As a working mom, I feel burnt out,” one surveyed journalist put it. The lack of stable work in Canadian journalism only makes things harder.

And low pay in the industry is harder on some groups than others. 

“There are so many applications, and it’s so hard to get a job,” one editor explained. “You need to have gone to journalism school, which is incredibly expensive. You need to have gotten all the internships.” Although women outnumber men in journalism programs, she noted that those who often get the job are cisgender men, and generally white.

This reality is especially challenging for transgender and non-binary journalists. A 2011 report from Trans Pulse highlights discriminatory hiring practices against people who identify under the umbrella term of trans working in Ontario. “Of trans Ontarians, 18 per cent had been turned down for a job because of their trans identities or histories and another 32 per cent were unsure if they were.” 

Fearing discrimination, a student journalist, who is non-binary, said they may not feel comfortable revealing their gender identity in future hiring scenarios and workplaces. “I feel like in the future I will also have to revert to using ‘he’ and not disclose my non-binary identity,” they explained. Although the student journalist had come out to their university’s journalism community, they worried discriminatory practices may prevent them from doing so in the industry. 

And struggles for equality of opportunity continue after a journalist has been hired. “Trans women in many fields of employment often, if not usually, get the worst shifts,” said one surveyed journalist of their experience. 

Who does what work?

Despite many of the journalists involved in this project having experienced discrimination, J-Source’s survey found that few reported these instances to employers. Of respondents to whom the question was applicable, 31 per cent of surveyed journalists said they experienced gender-based discrimination from an employer multiple times and 19 per cent experienced it once. Only 13 per cent of applicable respondents reported some of those instances and just six per cent reported all of them.

Gender discrimination often occurs when journalists are assigned work on the basis of their gender. Many reporters described being passed over on “hard” stories despite having an interest in those beats, such as crime or politics. Others said they were assigned light stories in health and education on the basis of their gender. A number of transgender and non-binary journalists described being boxed into assignments related to their gender identity.

At the same time, some journalists identified instances where they were assigned stories based on other elements of their identity, such as their race. “Any story related to an immigrant, or diversity or the Indigenous community, is … given to me because I’m the only person of colour in the newsroom,” said one daily news reporter, despite having interests in crime and breaking news.  

It wasn’t uncommon for journalists to report having their professional authority questioned either. 

“You get it a lot especially when you call academics for interviews,” said one national news reporter during a phone interview. “I get a lot of male experts who want to question my expertise and my ability to even ask them questions in a way that a male colleague who has interviewed them in the past hasn’t had to deal with, even though we’re similar levels of expertise”.

In newsroom discussions, some employees were asked unsolicited questions about or because of their identity. “I’ve been asked in newsrooms to sort of give my opinion on anything to do with diversity as a whole just because part of my family comes from that background,” said Olivia Bowden, a Toronto-based journalist. 

These types of questions ask one person to represent an entire group, which is especially awkward if you’re already uncertain about your identity, she noted. “You’re already confused about who you are even allowed to speak for because you don’t have either side of the identity completely. You don’t belong in either space, so being asked to pick a space is difficult,” said Bowden.

One surveyed journalist of colour noted instances where problematic statements related to race from managers  made her feel “uncomfortable and unsupported.” 

And in cases where journalists did want to discuss their identity in the workplace, several were made to feel unwelcome by colleagues. The student journalist described working at a student newspaper where it felt like their gender identity was neither accepted or understood.

“I feel like a lot of the things I wanted to talk about and who I am weren’t taken very seriously. There was not a lot of interest into it and it was kinda derided.” 

Editorial perspectives 

The editors interviewed for this article recognized the barriers faced by these journalists and shared what they think it takes to foster an equitable newsroom. 

One described her efforts to hire a diverse staff, especially in roles disproportionately held by cisgender men: “It’s important to have columnists with many different backgrounds because I don’t mess around too much with columns, they can kinda say whatever they want. So that’s something I very consciously go for.”

“It’s having more flexibility and understanding in the working culture of newsrooms that would allow women to lead flexible schedules.”

These measures seem particularly warranted given findings from J-Source’s columnist survey, which in 2017 reported that “general interest columnists are overwhelmingly male, white, straight and middle aged.” 

Andree Lau, editor-in-chief of HuffPost Canada, outlined how newsrooms can better accommodate mothers’ hectic schedules. “Shifting hours and allowing them to take off four hours in the middle of the day for a medical appointment, because you know fully well that that person is going to make it up later on in the night.” 

But creating an equitable culture can be a challenge.

“It’s an ongoing struggle to create gender equity and not only create it but maintain it, and be sure on all levels, organizationally, that we aren’t unconsciously discriminating,” Linda Solomon Wood, founder and editor-in-chief of the National Observer, said in a phone interview. 

Policies and procedures play a part in fostering gender equity in the workplace. “We would investigate where appropriate and take whatever measures were available to us,” Jonathan Whitten, former executive director of news content at the CBC, said via e-mail in response to a question about how the organization would support journalists who experienced gender discrimination or sexual misconduct from sources or members of the public. 

These editorial perspectives offer thoughtful proposals for the industry. But what’s also revealing is how few organizations – only five – responded to a survey J-Source sent to 400 newsrooms across the country, asking questions about the policies organizations have in place to deal with gender discrimination and sexual misconduct.

Achieving gender equity in Canadian journalism isn’t going to be easy. The journalists involved in this project deal with challenges from day one until retirement and many of these difficulties are heightened for transgender and non-binary reporters and compounded by other elements of identity such as race, sexual orientation, ability and class. A 2013 report from Indiana University suggests women journalists “tend to leave the profession much earlier on average than do men.” Trans Pulse’s research suggests, “many trans people are forced to make difficult choices (in the workplace) to help protect themselves and maximize their well-being.”

But not aiming for an equitable industry has consequences. One is the health and happiness of those working in the profession. “That horrible feeling of being an outsider to everything that they believe in, their ideas, their identities … not being listened to and not being heard. Not being seen in my entirety, in my entire self,” the student journalist said, describing how it felt to be excluded by colleagues. 

Research is being conducted that can help address gender equity in the industry. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Emergencies Response Team recently published the results of a survey aimed at improving the resources available to women and gender nonconforming journalists working in the United States and Canada.

“I think that you need as diverse a group of people at the table as you can”

But this research is only one part of the puzzle. A few journalists stated policies and procedures that better support certain groups and individuals are needed. Others said the answer involves serious changes to the culture of Canadian journalism. The solution probably includes both. In any case, many journalists involved in this project emphasized that it’s important to keep telling these stories, too.

Contributing editor: H.G. Watson

Sabrina Wilkinson is the J-Source/CWA Canada Reporting Fellow. She is also a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London where she investigates the politics of internet policy in Canada.