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Vivian Smith’s Outsiders Still looks at struggles of women in the newsroom

Marina Strauss at work in the newsroom at the Globe and Mail office in Toronto, Ont., on August 19, 2011. Vivian Smith’s new book looks at the challenges women have faced for decades in print journalism.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The salad course wasn't even over when people started to get a bad taste in their mouths.

About a week ago, hundreds of Canada's print journalism fraternity were gathered in the bowels of Toronto's Sheraton Centre for the annual National Newspaper Awards when Toronto Sun columnist Mike Strobel, one of the evening's emcees, began with a joke about the prospect of his co-host, Gabrielle Duchaine of La Presse, losing her dress to a wardrobe malfunction. As the journos shifted uncomfortably in their seats, Strobel stayed on form, noting that we are now in an era in which women can lead newsrooms. And if you agree with that, he said, then you might get laid! The catcalls rained down, Strobel wrapped up and people in the audience rolled their eyes. "He works for the Sun, what do you want?" quipped one of my colleagues.

But, really, it's not just the Sun. On her first day as a reporter with The Toronto Star back in the 1980s, Kelly Toughill says her boss greeted her by saying, "You've heard of Flannery O'Connor, right? A Good Man is Hard to Find? … Do you think a hard man is good to find?"

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That enraging anecdote is one of dozens laced through Vivian Smith's new book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers. Patricia Brooks Arenburg, a reporter with The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, tells Smith she remembers feeling like "garbage" when she found out she was being paid less than men who had been hired after her. Margo Goodhand, editor of the Edmonton Journal, recalls being turned down twice for a city editor position because she was, according to one manager, "too nice." She told Smith that, traditionally, "it's looked on as weak if you ask people's opinion, like, 'You don't know your own opinion?'"

For decades now, Smith has been mulling the questionable friendliness of newsrooms toward women. For 14 years, she had a front-row seat as a reporter, editor and manager at The Globe and Mail. She begins Outsiders Still by noting that, in the late summer of 1987, the paper's then-publisher Roy Megarry passed by her desk, glanced at her eight-months-plus pregnant belly and asked, "Are you still here?" She didn't know it at the time, but that was the moment "the end of my newsroom career began." (A September, 1987, entry in The Globe's archives notes that the final story edited by Smith before she went on maternity leave, at age 34, "was about couples who delay child bearing because of their careers.")

While women are in the top job at more Canadian papers than a generation ago, their numbers in upper management are still woefully low: Smith notes, for example, that The Globe has never had a woman as either editor-in-chief or publisher. Even women's reportorial work is evidently seen as less valuable: Of the 17 National Newspaper Awards won by individuals this year, 12 went to men, five to women. (Interestingly, of the other five awarded to groups of journalists, such as The Globe's project on thalidomide, most went to teams headed by women.)

Speaking to female print journalists across the country and from three generations, Smith probes the cognitive dissonance apparently baked into newsrooms: How can places that "pride themselves on exposing social inequality on the page as part of their accountability discourse" simultaneously "demonstrate myopia or (be) in denial about their own discriminatory practices"? She notes that print culture is rooted in institutions that were created in the late nineteenth century and has not yet fully lost its sexist overhang.

It is not, of course, just a question of workplace equality: Even in their financially straitened circumstances, newspapers continue to have a major influence on public policy. They help decide both what gets discussed and how the conversation unfolds. "Is it a problem if senior women print journalists are underrepresented, under stress and under the radar in terms of what might affect newspaper readership and, by extension, what issues citizens think about and act on?" asks Smith.

To be sure, many women who might have risen to higher positions have decided that sort of life wasn't for them. Licia Corbella, a columnist and the editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald, tells Smith, "I really don't want to be editor-in-chief and I really don't want to be publisher. … I dislike doing budgets. … I find that to be drudgery. I don't like firing people and that seems to be a growing part of the job."

There are flashes of optimism in Smith's book, especially when she notes the economic and technological changes roiling the industry. "Things are being blown up pretty dramatically right now," notes Toughill, now the director of the journalism program at the University of King's College in Halifax. "So I think there's all sorts of opportunity, in terms of how widely news gathering is spread across the population now." Looking at the management structure of TV news, she notes that industry "was far friendlier to women than newspapers, and that's because those structures were created in the 1950s and 1960s, not the 1880s."

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So, what, then, of the structures being created now? There are a number of high-profile outlets where women seem to be well represented – newsrooms such as Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and First Look Media's The Intercept – but just as many where manly men dominate the masthead. (Here's looking at you, Vice.) Women may still be outsiders, but the social, cultural and economic ground is shifting rapidly under news organizations. The smart ones can see the future.

Editor's note: Patricia Brooks Arenburg was incorrectly identified in the original version of this story.

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