Stand up and Have Solidarity for Women in Journalism

I’m a firm believer that journalism, and particularly freelance journalism, is the best job in the world. There’s not a day that I don’t love it and feel lucky. (Barring transcription time. Still hell.)

But recent events, especially the appalling murder of Kim Wall, have shed light on a couple of little acknowledged truths about the industry. Firstly, that there is an abundance of incredible female freelancers roaming the earth telling important stories. Second, that the unprofessional practices endemic in this industry are disproportionately affecting those women.

My friends in other sectors are endlessly shocked by the conditions many of us consider normal. There’s the low pay – see this depressing chart of standard rates set by prominent publications. We regularly take jobs without contracts or expenses. Editors commission work, receive it and then ignore emails. They dangle commissions without committing. “We’ll take a look at a draft.” Some pay ridiculously late, or never.

Rubbish pay and casual exploitation are miserable for everyone. But it’s particularly pernicious for women who by the virtue of their gender are vulnerable to threats while working that doesn’t even cross the minds of most men. On a recent hostile environment training course, I asked the instructor for advice on jumping out of a moving car. A friend asked what to do if you are pulled and dragged by your ponytail. The instructor was taken aback. But many women know and fear those things. They happen; they’ve happened.

Journalism doesn’t come with safety guarantees. Kim’s murder demonstrates the horrible truth that men will attack women anywhere in the world at any time. And female journalists must not be denied work because of the perception that they are vulnerable. But it is beyond time we enforce better protection for freelancers.

Because you haven’t got a firm commission, or a contract, or expenses, you hire the cheapest fixer who hasn’t been vetted by other colleagues. You stay in the dodgy guesthouse with the weird men loitering around the reception. You skip the car and driver and take a rickshaw after dark. It’s that or walking away from the assignment with zero profit. You’re not in this for the money but you need to make a living.

There are plenty of other reasons the industry needs to treat freelancers better. Basic decency is one. News organizations depend on them now that foreign bureaus have been slashed. But the risks to women are an important consideration.

I wonder if they are not being considered because it is still so often men who drive decision making. I’m delighted that so many of my colleagues in the freelance world are women, but have to wonder why my editors are almost exclusively male. Are staff jobs not going to women? If so, why?

The old boys’ club persists. In Southeast Asia, where I’m based, it has particularly creepy characteristics. This region is a notorious Never Never Land for men and some of them work in this industry.

Women, especially those just starting out, are not always welcome and often undermined. When I was an editor, I politely rejected several pitches from an older male freelancer whose oeuvre included a colorful dispatch from a teen nightclub where he literally ranked girls out of 10 as they walked by. So he wrote a lewd blog about me and sent it to seemingly everybody in the city including my boss.

The only way to change the industry is to demand it. Ask for proper compensation for your work. The worst an editor can say is no and a lot of the time they’ll say yes.  Stand up for other women in the industry. Hire them; commission them; take their concerns seriously. Sadly, the only really negative response to a request for expenses for a risky assignment I’ve had was from a female editor.

Don’t underestimate small acts of solidarity. A few years ago, when I was the target of some particularly noxious sexist gossip, I got an email from a female journalist I didn’t really know but whose work I greatly admired. “Don’t let the old men get you down!” she wrote. It made all the difference.

Poppy McPherson is a British journalist who has been based in Southeast Asia for the past five years, primarily covering Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as Cambodia and the Philippines. Her reporting and photos have been published by the Guardian, Guardian Cities, TIME, Foreign Policy, IRIN and others. Check it out here. Her first book, on the Rohingya crisis, will be out with I.B Tauris in 2018. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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