For Women in the Media, the Picture Is Still Gloomy

Times Staff Writer

There was the long view, which was upbeat.

And there was the short view, which was depressing.

At a weekend conference at USC on "Women, Men and Media: An Update," the short view was most pervasive.

Whether speaking of the number of women who lead newsrooms, head networks or direct films, the majority of participants at Saturday's conference on the progress of women in the news and entertainment industries weighed in on the gloomy side, offering evidence that women either are caught in a holding pattern or actually losing ground in the battle for equal time and jobs in the media.

Chaired by "Feminine Mystique" author Betty Friedan, a visiting professor at USC's School of Journalism and Institute for the Study of Women and Men, the second-annual, daylong conference sought to move beyond the generally grim numbers of women employed in power positions to such broader issues as whether a return to traditional sex roles--called "retro-feminism" in one recent magazine cover story--is hindering women's careers, and whether the women who are in decision-making roles are making a difference.

And, in most respects, its message was just as glum as it was last year.

Said Sara Davidson, creator of "Heartbeat," an ABC-TV series about a feminist health clinic: "We haven't reached the critical mass to see what kind of difference we could make."

The buzzword of the day seemed to be "plateau." Again and again, panelists said that after years of steady progress, the gains in employment made by women in media jobs seem to have flattened out.

Citing figures compiled by the Federal Communications Commission on the number of women broadcast professionals, Kathy Bonk, who headed the Women's Media Project of NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund, said: "We're not going backwards. We've just plateaued out."

According to Bonk, who now co-directs a Washington-D.C.-based communications consortium, the number of women in jobs such as news writer and television anchor nearly tripled during the Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations. But during the Reagan presidency, she said, "there was only a 3% gain."

Katherine Coker, past chairwoman of the women's committee of the Writers Guild of America West, said female writers in 1985 earned 70 cents for every $1 that their male counterparts made, a decrease from 1982 when women writers earned 73 cents on the dollar.

Nancy Woodhull, president of Gannett News Service, told the audience--a predominantly female gathering of 240 journalism students, working journalists, screenwriters, academics, entertainment industry publicists and others--that the picture was only "a smidgen better" for women on newspaper staffs. In 1989, women represented just under 14% of the editors, executive editors, managing editors and city editors nationally, an increase of less than 1% over last year's figures.

Women may be backsliding, she suggested, relating the story of a woman who recently was promoted to news vice president in a major media company, taking over the job of a man who had been a member of the company's influential executive committee.

"She was not named to the executive committee," but felt she could not complain, Woodhull said.

"It's that kind of thing (that's going on). It's true you can't rock the boat when you're not in it. But when you're sitting precariously on the edge, it's very, very tough" to rock it without falling off.

Janet Huck, a Los Angeles-based correspondent for Newsweek, asked the panelists how women are coping, given such discouraging signals.

Coker of the Writers Guild said women are hanging in because dropping out of the work force is not an economically feasible alternative. But they are under "enormous stress . . . (which is) growing all the time," she said.

Arlie Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist who has studied issues related to women and work, said many women she has interviewed are so overwhelmed by the responsibilities of career and home and so afraid of pressuring their husbands to share the burden that they are "dropping out within, repressing their ambitions."

"They are afraid because marriage has become extremely fragile," Hochschild said, "and they're afraid because of what happens economically to women" after a divorce.

Kathleen Ingley, business editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, said she has noticed more women succumbing to what she has called "voluntary plateauing"--women who have the opportunity to rise in their careers but choose not to because of family obligations and personal priorities.

"They are older, have children. They say, 'I don't want to give my life over to the newspaper,' " Ingley said.

According to figures compiled by Jean Gaddy Wilson of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which were released at the conference, women currently comprise 36% of the employees in radio, television and newspapers. But at the top ranks, barely 6.5% of the publishers of daily newspapers and less than 5.5% of the editors-in-chief were female. Women accounted for 6.1% of all television news presidents, vice presidents and general managers, less than a one-half percent increase since 1978.

In addition, Wilson found that less than 15% of the network news stories broadcast in 1986 were filed by female correspondents. And, of the 4,684 directors registered with the Directors Guild of America in 1986, 8%, or 384, were women. However, female directors garnered 24% of the nominations for Directors Guild awards.

Gannett executive Woodhull said women have not yet learned how to "empower" other women.

"We're not working together," she said. "We compete against one another. The only ones who can break the cycle are women themselves."

Lynn Loring, president of MGM Television, which produces the hit yuppie drama "thirtysomething" among others, said that although she got her first big break from a man, "I feel a definite responsibility to help women." In particular, she said, she has made a concerted effort to spot talented women in the secretarial ranks to help "make the jump" into creative positions, such as writers and story editors.

Davidson, who was a novelist and nonfiction author before trying her hand at television drama, raised the hackles of several in the audience when she said that she had a rough time finding many women writers qualified to write for "Heartbeat." And, she added, in terms of women directors, she frequently was asked to consider women who had little experience who came to her hoping for their first big break. But, harkening back to the "can't-rock-the-boat-if-you're-sitting-on-its-edge" principle, she said, "You cannot give a woman her first shot if you're trying to get on the air yourself."

One of this season's exceptions to the male-dominated show is "China Beach," about a MASH unit in Vietnam, which features an ensemble cast with several strong female characters. Co-creator John Sacret Young said the story editors are all women, the cast is more than 50% female, and more scripts are written by women than by men.

"I don't know if that's because we're different or strange," he said, to which a couple of the women panelists sharing the stage with him during the afternoon session jokingly responded, "Both."

Friedan ended the conference, which was sponsored by Women in Film and USC's School of Journalism and Institute for the Study of Women and Men, with a plea to form a national media monitoring group that could apply pressure to news and entertainment businesses to improve their hiring and portrayal of women.

One of the few optimistic notes sounded all day came from Hochschild, the UC Berkeley professor, who encouraged women to consider the long-term progress they have made. Despite ominous soundings from various sectors that a new traditionalism is gripping young women and sending them away from careers and back into the home, Hochschild said: "In the long term, I'm perhaps not as depressed as everyone here."

Yet, most of the conference's speakers voiced an impatience with the rate of changes--and an urgency to quicken the pace so that they might reap the benefits.

As CBS News' Siebens put it, "We can wait for our children to grow up and be hip CEOs, but by then we'll all be dead."

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