Why can't a woman be more like a man?" was Henry Higgins's great lament. It's one that has traditionally been shared by Fleet Street, at least as far as its senior personnel are concerned. In the tough, masculine environment of Fleet Street's newsrooms, women have often judged it best to conform. Feminising Fleet Street was never going to happen overnight.
But it's 15 years now since Wendy Henry became the first female newspaper editor, taking the helm of the News Of The World in 1987, and since then a number of others – Eve Pollard, Janet Street-Porter and Rosie Boycott, as well as Patsy Chapman, Bridget Rowe and Amanda Platell – have all taken their seat in the editorial limo. Currently three editors of daily and Sunday nationals are women – Rebekah Wade, who took over the News Of The World two years ago at 31, Tina Weaver, who has edited the Sunday Mirror for a year, and Veronica Wadley, who has just completed her first three months at the Evening Standard.
Today there is nothing stopping a female editor making her mark and changing the working ethos of British newspapers if she chooses. So is working for a female editor any different to slogging away for a man? One journalist who has worked under both Rosie Boycott and Janet Street-Porter insists that there is an immediate difference. "The first thing you notice is the style. When you go in for conference, a male editor will be sitting behind his desk, whereas female editors tend to sit round the room with you. It says a lot about management technique. Men see themselves at the top of the tree; women see themselves as part of a team."
Cristina Odone, the New Statesman deputy editor, agrees that femininity is a key factor in the difference between her editorial style and that of her editor, Peter Wilby. For her, it is highlighted by her approach to one of the essential trappings of editorship – the glass office.
"When Peter was away and I was editing, I chose to stay at my own desk. But I noticed that the publisher began to take editorial decisions! When I objected he said, 'Hold on, the editor sits in that glass office.' People fail to see any merit in a horizontal structure rather than a vertical one."
Creating a more open work space was also an immediate concern for Rosie Boycott when she arrived at the Daily Express. "One of the first things we did was to do away with the grand and distant offices allocated to the editor and move the editorial desks to the middle of the operation."
A Fleet Street editor's job comes with a variety of status symbols, including a chauffeur and a limousine. But in their relationship to professional perks, women editors have been scrutinised – and criticised – far more than their male counterparts. In her time at the Sunday Express, stories never ceased about how Eve Pollard would ask her chauffeur to run errands for her. Rosie Boycott decided this kind of scrutiny would become a barrier between herself and the workforce. "In the end I never had a limo. I drove my own car and got taxis, which is something I bet a bloke wouldn't do."
Female editors have, of course, controlled the magazine world for decades, and with personalities like Vogue's Anna "nuclear" Wintour, their capacity to terrify has never been in doubt. Yet however formidable they may be, in Fleet Street the consensus appears to be that a female editor will at least communicate more.
At the Evening Standard, the advent of Veronica Wadley, who replaced Max Hastings in February, was heralded by much trepidation about her allegedly "brusque" and "remote" style. Yet early reports claim the opposite, focusing on her intensive involvement with journalists.
"I'm surprised to hear myself saying this, but the environment has completely changed," said one senior journalist. "She wants to know what a piece is about, to read it, to change it, and is really involved with it. This does lead to absolutely endless chasing of stuff, but she is completely hands-on. She has the final word on everything."
"Women are nearly always better at communication, and thoseskills come into their own in the commissioning process," says Odone. "Women are excellent at enveloping the victim in a passionate rush of flattery before saying, 'Will you do this for us by tomorrow and the fee is 50p?' A man would rarely use that technique."
But having an editor with enhanced interpersonal skills has its own problems. "Women bosses can be friendlier," one Independent journalist says. "But because the relationship is more personal, if there's a problem they behave like you're a friend they've had a squabble with rather than a colleague. The distinctions get blurred."
But can female leadership genuinely affect a national newspaper's ethos?
"I think so, yes," says Rosie Boycott. "You're more collegiate, more involved and you ask more questions. I hate to have rows and I always prefer things decided by consensus. If things go wrong you don't have to cover up – I think this is something that men tend to do on a newspaper, because such big egos are involved – but women are more likely to put something on the table and say, 'Look at this problem. What do we do about it?'"
But any suggestion that because women with children are running newspapers they will naturally have more sympathy for their own female staff would be misplaced.
"On the work/life balance issue, the women I worked for were worse than men, partly because they've been so driven themselves that they don't much have sympathy for others in that situation," said one female journalist.
Veronica Wadley, who has two children of her own at home and was once quoted as saying "There is no time for personal problems in the office" gets into work at 6.30am, and her own standards have led to nervous copy-cat behaviour.
"I keep getting calls from journalists at the Standard who seem to be eating while on the phone. I ask what's happening and they say 'Oh, we don't like to go out for lunch much at the moment,'" Odone remarks.
"She is a workaholic, and there is a degree of presenteeism," another Standard journalist concedes. "People are getting in earlier, and the assumption is that you'll be around and you'll be working."
As far as changes to the actual editorial of papers is concerned, the presence of a female at the top does seem to make subtle inroads. Rebekah Wade spent time at The Sun lobbying to tackle the Page Three culture and made her mark as News Of The World editor when she published the names and photographs of 46 convicted male sex offenders. Staff at the Standard claim to have seen "definitely a change in editorial, a lot more health and fitness stuff."
But Georgina Henry, The Guardian's deputy editor, scorns gender generalisations, and thinks personality counts for far more than sex. "I don't think people edit as men or women. They edit as journalists."
Another Standard journalist agrees. "I've noticed changes since Veronica arrived, but it's not to do with working for a woman. At that level, women become honorary men anyhow, they're operating in such a male world and once they get to the top most of the people around a woman editor will be men. I do think when people get that far it's actually insulting to talk of them in terms of their gender."