‘Dropping the ladder’ for other women

They gain a larger role in pubcasting

Twenty-five years after an eye-opening CPB task force report on the topic, Current looked at major gains in the participation of women in public broadcasting. In another edition, we looked at the roles of ethnic minority groups in the field.

Originally published in Current, May 22, 2000
By Geneva Collins

In 1975, Susan Stamberg was holding her own as the first female anchor of a national nightly news program (at All Things Considered), and Susan Harmon was general manager of WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. The same year, a task force established by CPB issued a report that found women in prominent and powerful roles were outnumbered roughly 10 to one by men.

Although public broadcasting has its share of female pioneers who made early and remarkable contributions — from Elizabeth Campbell launching WETA in Washington, D.C. in 1961 to Joan Ganz Cooney founding Children's Television Workshop in 1968 — the 140-page Report of the Task Force on Women in Public Broadcasting served as a wake-up call to the industry that women were relegated to mostly clerical positions behind the scenes and largely supporting roles on the air.

Stamberg, now NPR special correspondent, says women have had more power in public radio than in other industries, "but for all the wrong reasons. Salaries have always been so low that men didn't stick around a lot."

Harmon, now a consultant with the Station Resource Group, was one of the task force's 15 members. She recalls that the 1975 report raised consciousness. "I think this is a pretty sensitive industry, compared to others," says Harmon. "Generally, public broadcasters want to do the right thing, and here you had these baseline statistics that showed the numbers were quite low."
. All full-time jobs Executive-level jobs*
. PubTV Pubradio PubTV Pubradio

Sources: 1974 data from the CPB-published Report of the Task Force on Women in Public Broadcasting, 1975; 1998 data from CPB’s annual report on minority programming and employment.

* In 1974 data, the executive-level category includes g.m.’s, chief engineers and these managers: station, operations, program, production and business. For 1998, figures are the sum of the Officials and Managers categories, including g.m.’s and department managers, such as the job titles used in 1974, plus news directors, controllers and others.

Here's a brief synopsis of those low numbers: The task force monitored a typical week of public TV and radio programming and gathered data on the number of males and females seen or heard and the types of occupational roles and activities of the characters in five programming categories: general adult, promotions, drama, music, and children's programming. In the adult programming category, for example, which included news, public affairs, documentaries, and general information programming, only 15 percent of the television participants were women; 23 percent of radio participants were. The only categories where women were strongly represented were on one TV drama — Upstairs, Downstairs (55 percent were women, in largely traditional roles) — and on TV musical performances (roughly half were woman).

The task force also looked at full-time employment numbers from fiscal year 1974. Women held 29 percent of all jobs in public television and 26 percent of radio jobs. However, only 9 percent were in executive-level positions in public television; 12 percent for radio (see box above).

Mitchell "skews the average"

But that was then; this is now. How is public broadcasting doing circa Y2K?

"There are a number of studies showing that women [on the air] are backsliding in broadcasting; gains made at the executive level have been small," says Sherry Rockey, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Women's Media Foundation, speaking about the entire field, not just public broadcasting. "Pat Mitchell alone is an enormous jump — that really skews the average."

Mitchell, who has worked for all three broadcast networks as well as CNN and TBS, was named PBS president in March.

"When I started in TV there was no such thing as a family issue ever discussed on a news program. It was because women pushed for them in daily reporting that we now talk about child custody cases, battered women, life balance, work issues," says Mitchell. "Women brought a different perspective. ... That's why the numbers game is important."

The latest score from the numbers game is this: women made up 47 percent of all fulltime public TV employees and 44 percent of pubradio employees, according to CPB's 1998 minority report to Congress — up from 29 and 26 percent a quarter-century ago.

Greater gains have come in the higher-ranking jobs. Women, who held about one in 10 of the executive-level jobs in pubcasting a quarter-century ago, now hold about one in four. In the two highest-ranking full-time job categories, women now comprise 43 percent of the executives in public TV and 38 percent in public radio. Those top two categories — officials and managers — encompass job descriptions that most closely correlate to the seven executive-level positions cited in the 1975 report. Class-action lawsuits and other equal-employment pressures kept broadcasters' attention on gender equity.

"In 1972, it was a very challenging environment," Pat Mitchell recalls. "There were only two or three [females] at each local station. We were realy there because the EEOC guidelines had insisted stations reach out to minorities and women."

"If you have between 25 to 35 percent of women represented in the work force, you have what they call critical mass," says Mitchell. "When you get to that point, you don't concentrate on breaking through the glass ceiling but to reach down to the women at lower levels. I call it dropping down the ladder."

Harmon says women pubcasters in the Washington-New York corridor created an informal networking-mentoring group in the '70s — the Pink Network, they called it — to drop down that ladder.

Elizabeth Young, who worked with Harmon on the CPB task force, remembers those meetings. At the time of the 1975 report, she had recently left her job as director of station relations at NPR to become executive director of the Kansas Public Television Commission.

"I was very close to most women in management positions at that time. It was a support system. Most of us were in positions where we could recruit and promote women; we were trying to be part of the solution. These meetings were not getting together to complain or share horror stories," says Young, who left public broadcasting in 1979.

Another veteran of the CPB task force on women, Don Mullally, now broadcasting director and g.m. of WILL-TV/radio in Urbana, Ill., says that two consequences of the report were that (1) CPB initiated a series of training grants for women and minorities to help them earn professional credentials, and (2) CPB established procedures for identifying women and minority job candidates when positions opened up.

"We've gotten a lot more sophisticated dealing with employment issues, dealing with professionals to find the right people for the job. We should expect that we are doing better now," says Mullally.

Pubcasting vs. commercial world

It's hard to pin down how well public broadcasting's performance compares with the commercial sector's. According to a 1999 National Association of Broadcasters survey, 15 percent of the country's 1,200 television g.m.'s are female. However, the NAB numbers include some public TV stations. NAB spokeswoman Ann Marie Cumming says the association only began keeping records on the topic in 1998 and couldn't provide other gender employment figures.

Outside the corporate suite, women are executive producing many of PBS's signature series, from Nova (Paula Apsell), The American Experience (Margaret Drain) and Bill Moyers' specials (Judy Doctoroff O'Neill and Judith Davidson Moyers) to P.O.V. (Cara Mertes) to ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! (Rebecca Eaton). They've got a virtual lock on children's programming (think Arthur to Zoom).

On the radio side, there are the executive producers of Morning Edition and ATC (Ellen McDonnell and Ellen Weiss, respectively), the producer of A Prairie Home Companion (Christine Tschida) and the producers of Lost and Found Sound (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva), to name just a few. And women run many major public radio stations, including big ones in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Francisco, Cleveland and Detroit [earlier story].

"I remember being struck when I arrived at WGBH in 1987 of the number of women then in charge, running departments, who were executive producers," says Drain, citing Eaton, Apsell, Kate Taylor (Zoom) and Brigid Sullivan (now v.p., special telecommunications services and children's programming) already in place at the Boston station. "I had come from CBS, which was a very, very heavily male-dominated structure. There were women who had moved into producing jobs, but nobody at a higher level."

While other women interviewed for this story talked about how they tried to bring more women on board, Drain remembers that The American Experience started out "with an all-girl's team (Drain, executive producer Judy Crichton, proposal writer Marilyn Mellows, business manager Susan Mottau). Judy and I actively recruited more men to be on the project."

Women on the airwaves

Producers and g.m.'s can be counted, but it's harder to quantify how well women are represented on the airwaves. William Hoynes, an associate professor of sociology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says academics have not analyzed public broadcasting's content in the '80s and '90s as closely as they did two decades earlier, although they are beginning to take a renewed interest of late. Hoynes, the author of the 1989 book Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market, and the Public Sphere, conducted in-depth analyses of PBS public affairs programming in 1992 and 1998. Although gender was only one part of his analysis, he found that women made up 21.5 percent of all sources used in the 1998 programming studied, which included news, business, talk/interview, and documentary programs. In 1992, it had been 23 percent—virtually unchanged over six years.

"I watch the programs frequently, so I was not surprised the [1998] numbers were roughly the same," says Hoynes. "But when I did the first study, I was surprised the numbers were so low. I thought PBS would be more balanced than commercial television."

In his most recent study, Hoynes found that women constitute a majority of sources on social issues, and that one show with all-female panels, To the Contrary, accounted for 59 percent of the women who appear in talk/interview programs.

"By concentrating the voices of women in public affairs programs into social issues, it suggests that women have a narrower range of expertise than men do," he says. "I would have thought nine years into To the Contrary we wouldn't be so necessary any more," says Bonnie Erbe, host and creator of the news analysis show. "We go to great pains to balance every show with political balance and minority representation—two of the four panelists are women of color. Turn on the rest of the Sunday morning talk shows, and you still see four or five older white males."

At NPR, Stamberg says she didn't learn until 11 years after she began anchoring ATC in 1972 that Bill Siemering, NPR's first program director, was deluged with protests from news directors around the country asserting that a woman delivering the news lacked authority and wouldn't be taken seriously. "I think he was concerned if he told me it would somehow affect my performance," she says. The protests didn't last long.

Now "our strongest reporting force is women — Nina [Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent], Mara [Liasson, White House correspondent], Linda [Wertheimer, ATC co-host] — these are our heaviest hitters," says Stamberg. "For a long time we were known as the network of strong women and soft men."

Laura Flanders, former host of CounterSpin, a weekly radio show produced by the watchdog group Fair & Accuracy in Reporting, and author of a 1997 book Real Majority, Media Minority: The Costs of Sidelining Women in Reporting, thinks it's time to move beyond the "bean counting" of employment statistics and minutes on-air and focus on "how issues are framed, who gets to be part of the discussion."

As an example she cited coverage of the recent protests in Washington at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. "The news stories note that there are women among the protesters, and maybe they'll even do a special-interest feature on a particular group of women protesters, but there's very little discussion of the trade issues and how they affect women's lives in Third World countries. It's still this man's story," she says.

Flanders, now editor and host of Radioforchange.com, fears that competition and media consolidation might be making broadcasting executives more conservative, if not complacent. Rockey and Erbe voiced similar concerns.

"On the institutional level you see a tough environment, heavily driven by advertising, or in the case of public broadcasting, serving underwriters, and threats of layoffs, consolidation," says Flanders. "I wonder if there is as loud a chorus as there was back in the '70s demanding, despite all that, that there be a movement toward greater inclusiveness and equality."

Web page posted May 28, 2000
Copyright 2000 by Current Publishing Committee

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