Pushing for parity

July 22, 2014 01:30

By Amy Tardif, RTDNA Chair-Elect
 
While organizing the EIJ14 session called “Pushing for Parity: How Women are Faring in Today’s Newsrooms," I started discussing yesterday's newsrooms with RTDNA President Emeritus and Missouri School of Journalism Professor Barbara Cochran and The Poynter Institute’s Senior Faculty in Leadership and Management Jill Geisler. We were specifically discussing when journalism organizations began allowing women to participate. In Nashville, we'll be part of a panel discussion moderated by Cochran, Geisler and co-chief of Revere Digital Kara Swisher, focusing on obstacles preventing women from rising to the top forty years after they first started entering newsrooms in significant numbers.
 
"The reaction to the firing of Jill Abramson as the editor of the New York Times was a sharp reminder of how women in journalism feel they still face obstacles in advancing to and retaining leadership positions,” said Cochran. “This seemed like the perfect occasion for a conference of journalists to assess where women stand now and to lay out strategies for success. With some of the top leaders in journalism participating, we hope to generate a discussion that will enlighten and empower women and men who are seeking true parity in newsrooms."
 
Not surprisingly there were also obstacles not that many years ago for women interested in serving the journalism industry on the boards of some associations.
 
Though actress Sarah Bernhardt dropped by in the early days and actress Lauren Bacall sat atop its piano during World War II, the National Press Club excluded women as members until 1971. According to its website, women opened the rival Women’s National Press Club the year they got the right to vote in 1919. When the National Press Club admitted women in 1971, the women’s club became the Washington Press Club and admitted men. The two merged in 1985. The late longtime UPI journalist Helen Thomas was one of the first women to join the National Press Club, according to an obituary on its website. “She broke the gender barrier again to serve in Press Club leadership, including as chairwoman of our board of governors,” wrote Club President Myron Belkind last July.
 
This September at Excellence in Journalism 2014, two women will take the helm as Chairwoman of RTDNA and President of SPJ. Dana Neuts is a freelance writer and editor from Kent, Washington. She will be only the eighth woman president of SPJ since it was founded in 1909 as the journalistic fraternity Sigma Delta Chi. "I'm excited to have the opportunity to be the eighth female president of SPJ,” said Neuts. “However, I believe I was elected because of my experience, leadership skills and passion for SPJ and journalism. Hopefully, criteria such as gender, orientation and age will blur in the future, and people will be considered for such leadership positions on qualifications alone."
 
According to the history of the organization, the decision to admit women was made in 1969 at its San Diego Convention. Two days later, ten women were initiated into the St. Bonaventure Chapter. Caroline Ross Pokrzywinski was the first woman elected to the SPJ board in 1971. SPJ’s first female president was Jean Otto in 1979. Otto wrote in her autobiography “First Love: Memoirs of a First Amendment Freedom Fighter” that joining SPJ discussions introduced her to a host of journalism questions she had never really considered, including ethics, information access, truth and individual privacy. Jean Otto passed away in 2011.
 
Women were always welcome as members but it took 15 more years for a woman to lead the world’s largest electronic journalism organization. “Three women attended the founding convention of the National Association of Radio News Editors, which quickly replaced ‘editors’ with ‘directors’ and a few years later and became the Radio-Television News Directors Association when it became apparent television was not going to go away,” said RTDNA historian and two-time Chairman Bob Priddy. “They weren’t news directors but women have always been allowed in the organization,” he said.
 
Marci Burdick, then at KYTV in Springfield, Missouri was the first Chairwoman of RTNDA in 1994.  She’s now the Senior Vice-President of Broadcasting for Schurz Communications and serves on the NAB board. She was also the first Chairwoman of the NBC Affiliates Association.
 
“No one, including me, expected me to win the election,” said Burdick.  “It was pretty much standard fare that ‘the newcomer’ (me) would run and be defeated, then run again the second year and be elected.  That’s what I expected when I ran against Bill Yeager, then of Metro Traffic.  Bill had been on the Board much longer then me and was (and is) widely respected. I am told it was my speech which ‘nailed it’,” she said. Burdick’s humorous speech described her attempts to get her 3-year-old daughter to bed one night. In defiance, the toddler called her mother first a dummy-head, then a stupid-head, and finally a newscaster-head!
 
Just prior to Burdick’s term, while she served on the Board of Directors, RTNDA added the term “Chairwoman” to its by-laws. The board had already re-written its Code of Ethics in 1972 to include the possibility that a journalist could be a “she” as well as a “he”.
 
“Sounds funny in hindsight, but there was a quite a debate about gender specificity (using ‘he/she’ and ‘Chairman/woman’) versus gender neutrality, i.e. using ‘Chair’,” said Burdick. “Bob Priddy was quite eloquent that a ‘Chair had four legs, while a Chairman or Chairwoman had two!’ Honestly, it didn’t matter much to me one way or the other. The reality of the opportunity for women to lead the organization was far more important to me than the words we used,” she said.
 
With her priority of getting the organization’s economic house in order, Burdick said she helped RTNDA “right the ship for a few years anyway, in a very quiet, behind the scenes manner.”
 
I will become RTDNA’s fourth Chairwoman since its inception in 1946. As the FM Station Manager and News Director at WGCU Public Media in Fort Myers, Florida, I’m also the first woman in public radio to lead RTDNA. As of this writing, Kathy Walker is running unopposed to become the fifth woman Chair-Elect of RTDNA.
 
RTDNA’s Chairwomen:
1994 Marci Burdick
1998 Lucy Himstedt
2006 Angie Kucharski
2014 Amy Tardif
 
There will be a reunion going on at EIJ14 for past RTDNA leaders. All four expect to attend.