At a charity fund-raising meeting reported recently in the UK Press Gazette, some 200 women in newspapers, magazines and broadcasting heard Amanda Platell, promotions director at Mirror Group Newspapers, blame a 'male network' was 'threatening, pernicious and unacceptable' for women's failure to penetrate that much-cited glass ceiling.
The mood of the meeting was said to be angry. A prevailing view was that while women had reached very senior posts, indeed, editorships, in the tabloid and middle market press, they had made comparatively few advances in the broadsheets. Here there were plenty of women working away in backroom roles, making sure that the paper got out, but when it came to high-profile, opinion-forming, policy-making posts, the women vanished.
Something of the same frustration emerges from an article written for the Journalist's Handbook by Suzanne Moore and reprinted in the Guardian. While rehearsing the age-old argument that women have to fight not to be sidelined into 'women's affairs', she lamented what she saw as the division of newspapers into 'hard' news - written largely by men for men - and 'soft', more personal, features - written by women for women. The thrust of her argument was that there should be more personal angles on political news and more serious comment on traditionally 'soft' areas.
'The sight of male ministers and judges, or indeed male leader writers, pontificating on single motherhood has not been an edifying one,' she wrote, and recounted how she has been asked on occasion to be 'just a bit more personal', a request she could not imagine being made of a man. Hear, hear]
Now, as it happens, Moore is wrong on the complete absence of women leader writers on broadsheet newspapers and there are 'serious' women columnists aside from the Times's Janet Daley - what about Melanie Phillips, now at the Observer, or Beatrix Campbell, at the Independent? But on the broad point, the lack of women in political, foreign affairs and senior policy and opinion-forming roles, the dearth of bylines proves her point.
Further testimony at least to a fresh interest in, if not to a fresh view of, the role of women in the media, is provided by two new books - one on female reporters, just published (Anna Sebba's Battling for News, the rise of the woman reporter, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 19.99); the other a collection of interviews with senior women in advertising and the media (Ginny Dougary, The Executive Tart and Other Myths, Virago, pounds 7.99) to be published later this year. Both suggest that women in traditional organisations face special difficulties if they want to tackle 'hard' news and politics.
Sebba's book coincidentally showshow many of the obstacles confronted by the pioneering women reporters - Clare Hollingworth, Anne Sharpley - still exist: the reluctance of male editors to send women on 'hard' or high-profile assignments; reluctance to appoint women as political reporters or commentators unless there is a 'women's' angle. She also notes the need for women to show extraordinary singlemindedness, the advantage of having a male patron, and the lack of female news and comment editors.
That these difficulties persist into the Nineties may be one reason for the current upsurge in militancy among women journalists. The reasons may, however, be more complex than male-domination of 'hard' news and comment. There can surely be no doubt any longer that women journalists can perform as well as men, whether in a war zone, a foreign capital or at Westminster. They may even perform better, if only because they tried so hard to get there.
The reporter most frequently quoted by John Campbell in his recent biography of Edward Heath is Nora Beloff. It is her version of the political story that he selects for veracity more than 20 years on. Where were all the men when Maggie O'Kane and Penny Marshall were reporting atrocities in Bosnia? True, women have advantages over men in war zones where the ground rules are hazy: officers feel protective and the men like to see a woman. But the stories were there for the reporting.
Perhaps four reasons can be identified to help explain why women have progressed so relatively slowly in 'serious' journalism. First, they may prefer to remain in reporting or subbing rather than 'progress' to commenting or management. A woman's priorities may be different from those of a man, and may prize personal satisfaction above seniority.
Second, many women prefer their sometimes denigrated 'soft' news or features roles. This is where they gain most recognition, what they find most enjoyable and what they are supremely qualified to do. This is also where a very few women columnists can earn just as much, sometimes more, than the men.
Third, it seems much harder for women to use one area of expertise or experience as a springboard to something quite different. As Dougary noted, women would find it hard to emulate the careers of several senior newspapermen, who have progressed from general or business reporting, through features departments, to political editor or Washington correspondent, and further. Observation suggests that women are more likely to obtain their first relatively senior post by dint of their specialisation. But they then find it harder to convince editors that their experience is transferable.
Fourth, there do appear to be zones that are almost off limits to women. They include the posts of political editor and chief commentator and the more prized foreign postings, also many critics' posts. These all combine a large element of pleasure with seniority and influence. These are the posts that tend to be decided over drinks at the pub or club, and to which open competition will come last.
Omens for the future are not hopeful, but for a separate reason: television. Serious newspapers (the Financial Times) and even such companies as Reuters are diversifying into television. News agencies, with their emphasis on getting news rather than projecting personality, have become something of a haven for women reporters. Unless television changes its ways, however, it will prefer its women reporters to be young and attractive, and gravitas will remain the male preserve.
The author edits the comment pages of the 'Independent'.