Even before Harvey Weinstein was exposed, before the #metoo movement and before Time’s Up, The New York Times was planning a new way to cover gender from its newsroom. As part of a broader push to try to increase diversity in their reporting, The Times appointed Francesca Donner director of its “gender initiative”, which included the paper’s first gender editor, Jessica Bennett, who started work the same day The Times published its Harvey Weinstein story.

The Times says the role is not to reintroduce “women’s pages”, but to make sure gender is included or used as a “lens” to cover gender within other stories. Donner has been speaking about the initiative in Australia this week, and has said it’s been well-received both internally and externally.

But as for whether that could or should work in Australia, the idea is a conflicting one, according to journalist and Macquarie University media professor Catharine Lumby. Her first substantive round, as a young journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald in the late ’80s, was on a page called Agenda.

“Essentially it was referred to as the ‘women’s page’ at news conference in a patronising manner,” she told Crikey. “It was an era … where there was still this idea that there were women’s stories that were soft news, and then there was hard news — politics, finance and sport. The idea of coming back to appoint someone to focus on gender is interesting.”

Lumby said that newsrooms in Australia are still gendered, with straight, white men overwhelmingly in charge of newsrooms.

“A lot of people deciding what makes news or what makes a story are male. On one hand I can see why having a gender editor is a great idea, but on the other hand, the problem is a systemic, cultural struggle. A lot of the problem is historically that our news was gendered, and you’d hope that would’ve changed but it’s still mostly men running the news.”

For Lumby, the only real way to ensure the news is inclusive is to increase the number of women, and increase diversity generally, among the decision makers. “They could actively do that and it’s not for want of talent that they’re not, it’s for want of imagination.”

Women’s Leadership Institute Australia executive director Amy Mullins said that while appointing a gender editor or reporter might be out of the budget for a lot of Australian newsrooms, it would be a positive, but likely temporary, step for equality.

“I think it’s just one of many strategies that people could take, but what it does show is that The New York Times newsroom is trying to significantly invest in women or gender, and that’s really important in making sure there’s gender balance and that gender is really a lens across all news stories,” Mullins said.

Mullins said other strategies could be like that of Bloomberg, which has announced it is creating a database of women executives who can be used as sources, or ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine, who undertook a project to have women make up half his on-air talent.

“These initiatives are interesting because it’s not about separating gender as a topic. It doesn’t need to be like The New York Times, which is well-resourced. There is a way that Australia can adapt that approach to make sure gender was front of mind or part of researching news stories across all topics. Putting a resource into a gender round could be temporary, it’s just bringing in that gender lens.”

Mullins said there was also commercial interest in ensuring women are included in the news and in decision making around what makes news.

“It’s tough to invest in new areas, but this is one area that has captured the imagination in a good way and a bad way. People have woken up to something that’s been happening covertly. And there is a commercial element. 51% of the population are women and they’re avid consumers. If we’re including them in the media that means commercially they’ll become more interested.”

Peter Fray

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