My first job in journalism was at a local newspaper staffed mostly by men. When many of them left for gigs elsewhere, I was told that hiring decisions would be based on finding the "best person for the job." In a matter of months, we had staffed all of our management positions with three white men named Mike. So I tipped the gender balance even further—I quit.
This week, the Women's Media Center released its annual report on the state of women in the nation's newsrooms, radio stations, and film sets. The good news: In 2011, women held 40.5 percent of newspaper jobs, compared to the 36.6 percent they occupied in 2010. (Women's representation at American newspapers had hovered below the 40 percent mark for more than a decade). The bad news: By almost every other measure, media remains overwhelmingly male, and it's getting maler.
Last year, women made up only 22 percent of the local radio workforce, compared to 29.2 percent in 2010. Women's representation in sports news hasn't budged since 2008 (just 11 percent of editors, 10 percent of columnists, and 7 percent of reporters are women). In one year, women dropped from 20 percent of behind-the-scenes entertainment television roles to just 4 percent. Worldwide, women are the subjects of 24 percent of news stories. Just 21 percent of Sunday morning television commentators are women. Only a third of speaking characters in films are female (and about a quarter of them are dressed sexily). Women direct 5 percent of films. And it's not for lack of talent or enthusiasm: Women make up 73 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates.
This story is not new. The Women's Media Center's data charts the chronic underrepresentation of women behind the camera, on the page, and in newsrooms back to 1998 (really, it goes back forever). But the sheer endurance of male overrepresentation in the media begets its own narrative: It does not necessarily get better. And even when it does, it doesn't always stay that way. Gender equality in the media takes attention, work, and vigilance. It requires us to confront an uncomfortable truth: If we are all truly hiring the best person for the job, it means that we think that men are better.
It's easy to hide behind that old journalistic convention of objectivity, but when your "unbiased" hiring strategy results in the systematic underrepresentation of women, something very biased is going on. And the problem compounds itself—male workforces mean male networks and male job candidates and male hiring metrics and stories about men. About half the time, we should be hiring the best woman for the job. If we don't, we're part of the problem. So hire women. Write about them. Give them lines. Invite them onto your shows. Just do it, and don't stop.