After yet another dramatic, invariably unhappy ending to one of the many fictional stories I churned out at school, a teacher commented: “Jane is either going to be a serial killer or a tabloid journalist.”
Fortunately for all concerned, it was the latter, but there was still consternation from both my mother and careers master because they deemed journalism to be “no job for a lady”. Well, perhaps it wasn’t when I started out 28 years ago, but it certainly is now.
Back then, trail-blazing women such as former News of the World editors Wendy Henry and Patsy Chapman , and ex-Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express editor Eve Pollard were the exception rather than the rule, successfully penetrating as they did the all-male bastion of the industry’s top jobs. I spent many a long hour in smokey newsrooms, surrounded by dozens of irascible, middle-aged men and all too few women. When I became a royal correspondent in 1989, I was the only woman in the pack.
But now there are more female journalists – and senior ones, too – than ever before, permeating all genres of the industry from newspapers, radio and television to online. Rebekah Wade (now Rebekah Brooks) is perhaps the poster girl for all ambitious hackettes, present and future, being the first woman to edit The Sun and recently promoted to all-powerful CEO of News International. Her achievements are proof, should it be required, that if there used to be a glass ceiling in journalism, there certainly isn’t any more, even though the fact remains that, while women are increasingly taking senior jobs in TV and the tabloid and mid-market papers, men still seem to dominate, despite folio downsizing, what are still known as the broadsheets.
Yet while there will undoubtedly be many opportunities over the coming years for women to snap up even more senior posts as electronic media proliferates and the “newspaper” industry expands its business via various multimedia formats, the burning question is: will we take them?
Some will, but many won’t. I know this from personal experience. In my twenties, I worked punishingly long hours as a newspaper executive. But when, in my early thirties, I was offered the deputy editorship of the Sunday Mirror, I turned it down and, with it, I imagine, my chances of ever becoming an editor. Why? Because by then I’d had a child and, as a single parent, I knew that combining motherhood with such a high-flying and relentlessly demanding role would mean spending my life in a perpetual state of stress and guilt. Or perhaps, unlike current Sunday Mirror editor Tina Weaver, who ably juggles motherhood and a demanding job, I just wasn’t very ambitious. Whichever, I eventually took the columnist/commentator route that meant I could mostly work from home, a set-up that suited me then and still does.
I have been The Sun’s “Glenda” – the pejorative tag given to female columnists by the male-dominated Private Eye – for 14 years now, and in that time the number of women columnists across all newspapers and magazines has shot up. It’s an area in which we excel, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of reader-interest and response. The days of female columnists being expected to write only about soft issues, leaving the tough news and political commentary to the boys, are no more. And while some may not deem the job description powerful, the platform it gives us is. We may not be in the editor’s chair, but we are an integral part of a newspaper’s unique bond with its readers, and are highly paid accordingly. So while some women will choose to be the Wendys, Eves or Rebekahs – or high-powered TV executives – of tomorrow, many others will take the route I have and, thanks to rolling news and the online phenomenon, keep their finger on the pulse from home.
The beauty of a career in journalism is that it now offers something for all women. They can scale its dizzy heights if they wish, enjoying power in its traditional form. Or they can benefit from its flexibility, bending work round family commitments and empowering themselves to come close to achieving that female Holy Grail: having it all. Because of this, I have no doubt we’ll see the number of women influential in journalism swell even more over the next couple of decades. But if there is no increase in those occupying senior editorial positions, or even fewer as time goes by, it will be through their own personal choice and nothing to do with a glass ceiling that has long since been shattered.
The writer is a Sun columnist, novelist and broadcaster
This article appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 20 Number 3, available from SAGE Publications, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. Subscription hotline: +44 (0)20 7324 8701. Email:email@example.com