Opinion, Women

Yes, we are bovvered

The Times – September 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Why do so many teenage girls play up to the slutty, binge-drinking image promoted by lads’ mags? Whatever happened to hard-won feminism?

It was a column last year by Rosie Boycott, the writer and broadcaster, that first sounded an alarm bell. She was reeling from having read Nuts, one of the younger lads mags (read by schoolboys as well as young adult males), in which every woman who had achieved something in her own right – other than possessing a great pair of boobs – was routinely dismissed as a boot-faced minger or dyke. Dame Ellen MacArthur, who had just achieved another nautical first, came in for a particular drubbing: “a miserable, sobbing, whining bitch in a boat. . . basically a frigid dyke-looking, yachting c***”.

The bells started to clang in earnest when the respected Sydney Morning Herald’s weekend supplement devoted an issue to Generation Sex: the Rules of Engagement in the New Age of Raunch, which talked about teenage girls performing oral sex on strangers or pretending to be lesbians to “thrill the guys . . . welcome to the latest sexual revolution where porn is pop, feminism is a dirty word and girls just wanna have fun”.

Fenella Souter, the writer of the cover story, pronounced that “sexiness has become the new political correctness and it has profoundly shaped the way young people see everything from sex and relationships to pornography and personal power”. She wrote about the rise of pole dancing as a mainstream exercise activity (a London friend told me she was horrified to hear that the parents of a schoolfriend of her 16-year-old daughter had consented to lay on pole-dancing as birthday-party entertainment), the popularity of burlesque clubs showcasing (ironic?) “striptease that knows how to laugh at itself” (the New Exhibitionism) and mentioned a recent UK survey of 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in which 63 per cent considered their ideal profession to be “glamour model”, posing nude or seminude.

In last year’s wave-making book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American author Ariel Levy asked: “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star going to render us sexually liberated?”

When I commented on the “interesting” outfits (think of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) of one of the girls in my younger teenage son’s circle, his knowing friend said: “You mean, she looks like a slut.” When I protested (hypocritically) that that wasn’t what I meant, he said: “But you don’t understand: that’s exactly what she wants to look like.”

Teenage girls are a paradox: why is it that while they outstrip boys from primary school to university, they also outdrink the boys (girls are now officially bigger binge drinkers than boys, and their numbers are growing), dress like tarts and apparently behave like them too?

A friend told me that at her daughter’s mixed private school 15-year-old girls are giving fellatio to boys in the loos for a fiver. I heard from two different sources about girls at inner-city comprehensives performing the same act in classrooms. Time and again I hear that despite their academic achievements girls are turned off the idea of emulating their careerist mothers: instead they want nothing more than to be a Wag, or at least marry someone rich enough to support their shopping habit.

What is going on? Is the pornogrification of mainstream culture partly to blame, where even serious actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Maggie Gyllenhaal pose in their underwear for magazine and advertising shoots? A culture in which lad mags such as FHM, recently condemned for publishing a picture of a topless 14-year-old girl without her permission, are apparently sent thousands of similar pictures by girls of themselves every week. A culture in which the website of Bliss magazine (target age 14-17) invited girls to send in photographs of themselves to be marked out of 10 “on looks and pullability”.

Is there some correlation between the misogyny of lads’ magazines (Zoo reported that the singer Courtney Love had “nasty, lumpy breasts” and had “an awful lot of sex” with her “previous owners”) and the fact that boys are doing less well than girls at school? And are girls (who still want to be considered “fit” and fanciable) compensating for outstripping the boys by dressing like strippers and behaving like baby hookers?

As the mother of teenage boys, I felt out of touch with what is going on in the heads of teenage girls and wanted to know what they made of all the contradictory messages in the media. Were they – like Catherine Tate’s bolshy schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper – actually deeply “bovvered”, despite their protestations not to give a damn? Why are self-hating eating disorders on the rise, for instance, affecting girls as young as eight? What effect do scenes of drunk and disorderly girls have on Muslim families at a time when it is imperative that our different communities should be pulling together? Does it push them into being even more conservative where their own daughters are concerned?

It occured to me that Women in Journalism, the campaigning organisation which I was involved in setting up in 1995, might be interested in investigating these issues. Some years ago Ann Treneman (Times parliamentary sketch-writer) legal journalist Fiona Bawdon and I worked together on a WIJ conference exploring the ways in which high-profile women were written about in a completely different way (ie, demeaning and trivialising) from men.

That made a splash, partly because the research was so damning but also because it was relevant to people beyond our own membership. Could a conference on teenage girls have a similar impact? The WIJ committee and chair, Sue Mathias, deputy editor of New Statesman,were immediately persuaded.

Fiona Bawdon was game to do the bulk of the work and immediately started researching. The British Library provided the venue and 100 schoolgirls and boys from around the country to participate in the summit (although the British Library has strict guidelines on what can be discussed on their premises, and sexual practices among teenagers in the presence of a teenage audience is verboten. This was a disappointment, as sex among teenagers was one of the aspects that most “bovvered” me).

During the time that we were planning this campaign, I travelled with Cherie Booth on an assignment in Pakistan and Afghanistan and was impressed by her ability to coax the most recalcitrant women and their daughters into talking about awkward issues. Might she be interested in participating in WIJ’s conference on teenage girls? The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Back in England, Cherie was incredibly supportive behind the scenes and on the day of the conference she was a galvanising moderator, quizzing panelists who included the token “baddie” and only man, Ed Needham (former editor of FHM), comedian Shazia Mirza and – the undisputed star of the event – the teenage actress Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Sasha in Hollyoaks. Nathalie, who is very beautiful herself, said that she is attracted to people’s personalities more than their looks, and: “I take comfort in knowing that people’s pictures are airbrushed, however beautiful they are,” to applause from the largely teenage audience.

What was striking about the conference was how reluctant the boys were to speak out, even in the more informal context of the break-out groups that took place after the main event. When I was a schoolgirl in the Seventies, at the height of women’s lib, we tended to shut up in the company of boys and let them opine away. What has happened since? If the audience had been stuffed with public school boys, as well as girls, would the gender difference have been so marked? At my sons’ single sex school, for instance, no boy got lower than a B in this year’s GCSEs: does this make them more confident about the value of what they have to say? Is it a class issue as much as a gender issue?

The debate in the panelled part of the conference focused almost exclusively on body image. It had been Cherie’s clever idea to hold the event during London Fashion Week, and this may have had an impact. What hasn’t changed from my time as a teenager is that boys (and men) say they are not attracted to skinny girls as much as to those with curves. Teenage girls, meanwhile, apparently remain convinced that they are never thin enough.

When Cherie managed to winkle out the clam-like boys, they made it clear that they are not fooled by the airbrushing of celebrity women on the covers of magazines and that they are not looking for this sort of fake “perfection” in real girls, let alone lusting after a “size 0” fashion paradigm. Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunity Commission, implored them to communicate this message to the girls: “Preferably without laughing”.

One of the schoolgirls in the audience made the point that “perhaps boys are more complacent than girls because they know that they will do better in the workplace anyway.” Watson chimed in with the depressing fact that even after 30 years of so-called equality, “for every £1 a man earns in the work place, a woman earns 17 pence less” and encouraged girls to ask their prospective employers whether their company had carried out a gender review: “You must make sure that you get paid the same as the men in the same job.”

In my break-out group on relationships, drugs and alcohol – with students aged 16 to 18 from St Thomas More school in Bedford – the teacher, Munira Sader, head of media studies, got the ball rolling by saying that when she first started at the school five years ago the girls tended to be more serious, but now “it seems to be a badge of honour to bring in photos showing how drunk they were at their parties.”

Both boys and girls commented on how Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse were getting more publicity and kudos from their bad behaviour than they ever did before. One of the girls, Imogen (an aspiring journalist, as it turned out), said she was sickened by the photos of 12-year-olds posting pictures of themselves on social networking websites dressed in their bikinis. A classmate said she was overreacting, since she sometimes sticks similar holiday snaps on the likes of MySpace. One of the boys questioned the research relating to girls outstripping boys academically – and wanted it to be more rigorous, with a breakdown of results at single-sex schools as well as private versus state schools.

Where the girls and boys were unanimous was in their view that the media should be more responsible and focus on more positive role models from their generation: “Why is it that it’s the young people who behave badly who get the most attention?” They were amazed (and thrilled) when the adults pointed out that if they wrote in to complain (and threatened to boycott the publications), they would actually make an impact.

It was the perceived hypocrisy of the press that really seemed to bother them. One made the point that boys who drink and have lots of sex are treated very differently from girls who indulge in the same behaviour.

At the end of this session it was my turn to be thrilled when three girls approached me – Lisa, Imogen and Daniella – and said that, despite all their criticisms of the media, they still wanted to be journalists. What did I think of my profession and could I help?

Their first effort appears on this page today, and they’d better keep to their side of the bargain and produce a school magazine that will put Fleet Street’s efforts to shame. Girl Power, indeed!

— A longer version of this article will appear on the new Women in Journalism website, which is being launched next week.

It’s hard being a teenager

Cherie Booth, who chaired the “Am I Bovvered?” conference, is impressed with teenagers today

It may be unfashionable to say this, but I think the younger generation are great. As a mother of four I know I might be biased, but the more young people I meet, the more I am convinced that our world is in safe hands.

The teenagers who attended the Women in Journalism event – many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to be there – confirmed my views of our young people. They were passionate, articulate, confident and frequently funny.

But what also came across loud and clear was that they felt it was hard being a modern teenager. While there might be more opportunities than ever, they felt themselves under more pressure to excel – whether it’s how well they do in their exams or how they look.

And as well as talking eloquently about their lives and the pressures they were under, there was consensus, too, at the negative picture of teenagers that the media painted.

They felt that there was too much concentration on the bad rather than the good, and that too few stories actually quoted young people or included their perspectives accurately in the debate. And there was a worrying consensus that the media reinforced unrealistic attitudes to beauty and body shapes.

The summit was primarily about teenage girls but plenty of boys made the effort to attend and express their views as well. The young women talked about the pressure they feel to diet and look good; others, including young men, called for more honesty from the press, and an end to passing off airbrushed images as reality.

One girl told the conference that she’d spent the summer on endless diets to look good on the beach and had ended up losing lots of weight but feeling dreadful. She wanted more coverage aimed at teens about good nutrition, rather than just shedding calories.

The teens said they often felt stigmatised and misrepresented by the media. But as one summit speaker pointed out, the new media gives today’s teenagers huge power to set the terms of debate themselves. It’s an opportunity that I am sure they will increasingly take. As last week’s summit showed, if you give young people the chance, they have a lot to say that’s worth hearing.


All those years of feminism, and girls still expect to be judged on their looks

Girls are now bigger binge drinkers than boys and get drunk more often.

They seem to be becoming more sexually assertive, too – behaviour also more usually associated with young males.

On the websites of magazines aimed at teenage girls, readers as young as 13 are posting pictures of their “buff boyfriends”. Readers are invited to “feast their eyes” over galleries of “lush lads”, many of whom are posing shirtless.

Readers are asked to vote on whether the teen boys displayed are “Hot lads or mingers?”; “Sexy, or sling him?” On the website for Sugar magazine, 13-year-old Jordan poses, still wearing his school tie but with his shirt undone to expose his torso.

Chloe explains that she sent his picture: “cuz es sxc a gr8 [trans: because he’s sexy, a great] boyfriend has a great body . . .” But while girls are increasingly matching (or surpassing) teenage boys drink for drink, and drooling over pictures of the opposite sex with their clothing askew, talk of widespread “gender-blurring” seems to be exaggerated.

Yes, young girls are adopting some behaviour typically seen as “male”, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve left behind behaviour typically seen as “female”, such as worrying about their appearance. Far from it.

Teenage girls at the Women in Journalism summit complained of feeling under intense pressure to match the unrealistic images of beauty shown in the media. And it seems that they are not alone.

In one study of 3,000 young women, half of those aged 16 to 25, and a quarter of the 10 to 15-year-olds said the media makes them feel that “being pretty and thin” is the most important thing for a girl. Worryingly, it seems that rather than gaining in confidence with age, the older girls feel this pressure more strongly.

Girls are far more critical of their bodies than boys. In this spirit, Bliss magazine had on its website a survey asking its readers (girls aged 14 to 17) to rate ten different bits of their own bodies (boobs, bums, tummy, thighs . . .), with the options being “Happy”, “Unhappy” or “Hate ’em”. They are asked to rate their overall looks, ranging from “Beautiful” to “Ewwww”. It’s hard to imagine a publication aimed at boys running such a survey – or, indeed, any boy filling it in.

Again, no doubt because they expect to be judged on looks, girls are more likely than boys to post pictures of themselves and their friends on social networking sites such as MySpace.

Girls feel equally disrespected by both boys their age and politicians. Nearly three-quarters of 16 to 25-year-olds say they aren’t treated with respect by the media or the fashion industry, either – which doesn’t stop their being highly influenced by both. Many teenage girls are keen to work in exactly the industries they criticise: 14 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds want to be TV presenters; more than a third of 10 to 14-year-olds want to be models.

Young women narrow – rather than expand – their aspirations as they get older. Doing well in a career becomes relatively less important and getting married becomes relatively more important as girls get older. Success at work is “very important” to 75 per cent of 10 to 15-year olds, but to only 60 per cent of those who are actually about to embark on a career, the 16 to 25-year-olds.

Similarly, doing well at school or university becomes less important with age.

Although girls are slightly less likely than boys of the same age to be overweight, they are much more likely to be unhappy with their weight.

Nearly half of 15-year-old girls think they’re too fat and a quarter of them will be dieting.

Up to 90 per cent of those suffering with eating disorders are girls – and sufferers are getting younger. The most common age for sufferers is 14-25 but eating disorders have been diagnosed in girls as young as 8. Experts say that one reason for this is that young girls are reaching puberty younger, and starving themselves is one way of trying to stop themselves being viewed sexually. They also say that the younger the sufferer, the more likely it is that their long-term health will be damaged, because their bodies are still developing.


We must speak up now

Lisa Caruso, Imogen Betts and Daniella Catanzaro, pupils at St Thomas Moore School, Bedford, are “bovvered” and prepared to make a stand

Did you know . . . not all teenagers are “yobs” and “wannabe WAGs”?

We do have a voice, it’s just ignored. At least that’s what we thought, until we attended the conference at the British Library, and realised that perceptions can be changed.

The conference, titled “Am I bovvered? – what are teenage girls really thinking?”, got us thinking . . .what do they know? They’re not teenagers! Now riled by the title, expecting a boring day of lectures (YAWN), being told about teenage girls’ place in the media and how we are affected by it, we braced ourselves for a patronising experience at the hands of “Women in journalism”. We expected the usual “media talk” . . . women are exploited, that’s the reality of life, it sells – accept it – BLAH BLAH BLAH!

What we got turned out to be an inspiring and thought-provoking day. Within the space of a debate, our whole world turned upside down . . . we realised that we, teenagers, do have a voice. Huh?

Yeah, that’s right! We do have the power to change things.

We were thrown into an open-floor debate (a what, some of us asked). Added to that experience was the celebrity-like nature of the panel; ranging from Cherie Booth to Nathalie Emmanuel (WOW, Sasha from Hollyoaks). The set-up and the chance to challenge the professionals, while gaining answers to our long-awaited questions, was almost surreal. It was, for once, nice to be on the same playing field as the professionals, not as stupid teenagers but as people with valid opinions. Armed with relevant, valid, life-altering questions, or so we thought, we prepared to grill the panel. This was made up of mostly women, the only man there being the former editor of FHM magazine.

Never mind, we thought, he’ll do. He can answer all the burning questions about the exploitation of women in men’s mags.

Boy, were we doomed to disappointment. He seemed to epitomise the latest media trend . . . Dodge the question! Shockingly, as informative and pro-women’s rights as the panel was, there were key areas where the women themselves dodged the question, especially when it came to editorial responsibility for images published in some magazines.

It was interesting to see that the boys in the audience were on our side! Although they didn’t say that until after we had left the venue. Helpful . . . NOT! But typical.

They weren’t shouting FHM’s praises . . . they don’t want everyone to be a size-zero supermodel, Oh, the comfort this gave many of us girls. Imagine what would happen to the size-zero debate if more boys made their voices heard.

There’s a challenge! Among the blurred discussions, all the journalists, and Cherie Booth, surprisingly proved to be approachable, and not the fire-breathing dragons we were expecting. I wonder where we got that from – the media, perhaps? Dove’s underappreciated campaign also caught our attention. The realisation hit us that what Dove was actually doing by allowing “normal” women to model for them was changing the way we view the industry. Taking the proverbial “one small step for woman, one giant step for womankind”.

It’s more companies like this that we need! Entering the conference, we weren’t expecting to enjoy, participate or be heard. Glad to say we were wrong. We did all three, and then some.

We realised that if we dislike something, we (all of us) should speak up. Then they’ll have no choice but to change it.

Now is the time to rebel and oppose what you think is wrong in the media. Now is the time to alter the current perception; and there are people on our side. So that is exactly what we are planning to do. If we want anything to change, we need to begin by making a difference.

We have decided to put together our own version of what we think a magazine should look like. One that defies the regular conventions.

Finally, no more bimbo cover girls. Instead a role model on the cover, one that we can look up to; who has achieved something worthwhile in her life beyond being “fit”.

Our aim is to create a magazine that has purpose, and can inspire girls to strive, have ambition and reach their potential; to show girls that there’s more to life than “getting” with a boy, looking fit and sleeping around. A magazine that can talk about things that matter! Next time you go out and buy a magazine, STOP . . . remember the impact you could have by not buying it! If you do buy it, then remember. See something you don’t like – do something about it. TODAY!!! P.S. Keep an eye out for our Girl Power magazine. Who knows?

— LC, IB, DC

General, Women

Women’s hour

THE GUARDIAN – July 4 2005
Ginny Dougary

Women In Journalism started as an accident … well, certainly by a sort of fluke and I was there to witness the unlikely uprising. In 1993 Eve Pollard, then editor of the Sunday Express, was also that year’s appeals chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, and hosted a fundraising evening with a panel of high-profile speakers. The topic she had chosen for discussion was something along the lines of Are Women Getting their Fair Share in the Media?.

At the time, I was writing a book about women in the media (The Executive Tart & Other Myths) and had gone along hoping I might pick up some good stories. It was one of those veal-coloured corporate dining-rooms, and there was nothing in the air-chilled atmosphere to prepare any of us – and there were a lot of us, I noticed – for the heat of the impending debate.

I don’t remember much about the individual speeches but the outcry which followed them was unforgettable. One woman after another got to her feet and told a story about the antediluvian attitudes in her workplace: unequal pay; unequal promotion; lack of women in the boardroom; family un friendly policies. Up stood several very senior respected figures, well-known editors of glossy magazines, and junior reporters – women from newspapers on the left and right, broadsheets and tabloids.

As more and more diners clamoured to have their say, the mood in the room began to take on the emotionally-charged feeling of a revivalist meeting. The refrain was always the same: No, women are not getting their fair share and we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. “You do know that if you take on the men,” one newspaper veteran warned darkly, “there will be blood on the floor.”

At the end of the evening, Eve suggested that perhaps what we needed to do was to form some sort of lobbying group – like women in film and television and advertising. Did anyone think that was a good idea? A resounding cheer. Was anyone interested in get ting involved? Hundreds of hands went up. And that was it.

I was roped into joining the fledgling committee, something I had never done before or since. Amanda Platell, who was then doing something ultra-senior in the Mirror group, made a room available for our initial meetings, and passed the mantle on to Linda Christmas, who ran the post-grad journalism course at City University. We first became official in Eve’s glass-walled eyrie in the Express. Mary Ann Sieghart said, “Right. Let’s all put in £25 and that’ll get us started.” (There were about 30 women crowded around the boardroom table.) I remember Deborah Orr snorting magnificently at this and scribbling a cheque for £25 plus an O.

We were – and still are – a very disparate bunch of people, with our own particular hobby-horses, but united with the feeling that change was long overdue. I was amazed, for instance, while researching my book at how very few women there were in the top ranks of broadsheet newspapers: they existed as editors of colour supplements or Living pages, but were rare in politics, news, foreign, business, sport – all areas which have real clout within a paper. As for the top two jobs, there were only two women editors compared with more than 60 men (the tabloids were only marginally better). Back then, we were yet to see a female editor of the Independent, Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph or the Sun. It was still highly unusual to see women as deputy editors, whereas now it almost seems unusual not to.

The other area I was keen on monitoring was the way women are written about in newspapers. Other journalists were more concerned about not being sidelined after having children; pressing newspapers to adopt a more reasonable approach to balancing work and family life; finding a way to exchange information about pay and working conditions, or networking in the post-Fleet Street social wasteland.

There were 300-400 women at the launch party of Women In Journalism held in the library of the Reform Club. For the first couple of years, we seemed to have all our parties in similarly august, rather masculine clubs. (I suppose it must have added to our sense of storming the bastions.) On that night, among the festivities, we also started the more sober business of forming groups to tackle the different issues.

Ten years on, or more, I would have to say that although we did take on the men, there was no blood on the floor. There was some initial sneering from one or two male columnists – that was to be expected – but the great majority of newspaper editors were keen to show that they were on side. (Partly to send out the right message to the senior women journalists that were on their papers, but also because all editors are looking to attract more women readers). We did get to do a campaign on the portrayal of women which was widely picked up on and debated, and there has been research into family-friendly policies, the prospects for older women journalists, the ratio of women to men in conference, and so on. There are regular seminars with terrific speakers on everything from How to Ask for More Money? to How to Keep Your Job? (post babies or post menopause).

There have been founder members’ lunches with international guest speakers; a surreal dinner in the revolving restaurant of the BT Tower when editors pledged hefty sums to support Women In Journalism; a memorable drinks party hosted by Gordon Brown in No 11 Downing Street where he learnt that feminist journalists were anything but unfriendly; dilemmas and public arguments (Piers Morgan, a big WIJ benefactor, berating Rebekah Wade, then chair of WIJ, for being sanctimonious; should we be doing a candlelit vigil for WIJ member Yvonne Ridley captured by the Taliban?; what will we do if Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore turn up at the same function?)

It’s been fun, instructive and necessary – and we’re still going strong. Here’s to the next 10 years.

Tina Weaver, Editor, Sunday Mirror and current chair, Women In Journalism
A lot of guys in the newsroom have a laugh about Women in Journalism. But men have gathered in pubs and golf courses for years, so why shouldn’t women get together? As the chair, I’ve seen how we are an influential networking organisation, offering support and celebrating achievement. It’s very important we are not seen as a very right-on, politically correct, anti-male organisation. Things have changed enormously from the days when women in newsrooms were few and far between – and even then, were just given the girly, soft jobs. Among the first things I was asked to do on the Daily Mirror in 1992 was to dress in a gold bikini and be fired out of a cannon at a circus. Obviously, I told them where to stuff that idea. But gender is not even an issue anymore, as each reporter is judged on their own merit. Women get a good crack of the whip, whether it’s covering wars, politics or the Asian tsunami. WIJ has largely achieved what it set out to do, getting more women in newsrooms and the challenges facing female journalists are those facing any female in employment: family friendly policies in the workplace. The fact Trinity Mirror has a female chief executive and a female national editor shows how far the industry has come.

Eve Pollard , Former editor of Sunday Express and Sunday Mirror, author, honorary president of Women in Journalism
I was the founding member of WIJ. We wanted to campaign for equal pay and to improve the way women were written about in the press. We’ve been more successful in some of those areas than others. One of the first bits of research we did was to find out how many women were included in decision-making conferences. We’ve helped as women are now included far more. That’s not just down to WIJ, but we’ve done our bit. We’ve also helped with equal pay.

Unfortunately, newspapers don’t write about women any better than they used to. It’s a hard one because there’s a whole culture to change. It would be good if we looked at the way women were reported in the press and had some effect. We could be a neutral place to conduct debates and discussions, not only for women but the whole industry.

It is still easier for men than women but with every year, it gets less easy. We now have a constant three or four female newspaper editors, which is very different from when I was a number two. For women coming into the industry, that must help, psychologically.

I’ve had a fantastic time in my job and it’s my duty to pass that down and help. If there’s an old boys’ network, there should be an old girls’ club.

Sue Matthias, Deputy editor, New Statesman
When I joined the Independent on Sunday’s founding team, I was the only senior woman. Even in 1990, it felt old-fashioned, particularly after joining from the Observer, where there were more. In national papers, women have moved upwards into senior positions, but when it comes beyond that, to board level, there are still very few women up there.

We are moving towards a more balanced industry, but we’re not there yet and it would be nice to see more female editors. One of my roles when I joined the New Statesman in January was to increase the female circulation by bringing in more women writers. So in the election campaign, we published the New Stateswoman to reflect and explore the women’s vote. Overall, there has been a feminisation of newspapers, particularly when you look at the direction of the Independent and the Observer, where news is being featurised.

The old stereotypes of women doing features and men doing hard news is changing and we’ve seen much progress over the past 10 years. That old kind of discrimination is being phased out, but it’s noticeable that women in newspapers disappear over the age of 50.

Polly Toynbee, Commentator, the Guardian
I joined WIJ on the grounds that maybe it would want to create a better type of journalist, with higher standards and different perspectives than the macho style that has always run Fleet Street. This was a mistake; it was certainly not how things turned out to be. It’s just about girls networking, not about quality, standards or taking a different approach. Women are only really interested in it as a job promotion scheme. WIJ has made no stand for standards or quality because they are proud of women like Eve Pollard, who have been editors of pretty disgusting papers. They regard doing things just like the boys as a triumph. Sun editor Rebekah Wade has been as dreadful as anyone could be – as dreadful as the men before her. In the past 10 years, the portrayal of women has not changed much in the popular press. The Daily Mail is trashing women every day; their attitude is to tear them down for being too fat, or too thin. Being a woman, if you make it to the levels of being a political commentator, you are rather privileged, but the lobby is still a very macho, male-dominated atmosphere. Female journalists have a responsibility to look at the world through different eyes, not by mimicking men. They should think how to better reflect women instead of joining the lads’ culture.

Sarah Sands, Editor, Sunday Telegraph
I only ever went to one party. I like the idea of female solidarity but in practice women – as individuals – have different aims. Moreover, working women are all short of time and I had to miss the meetings because I was always stuck at the office.

Mary Ann Sieghart, Assistant editor and columnist, the Times
Today it’s more of an embarrassment among male executives if there aren’t women writers in their pages. When I started there wasn’t a single female voice in the op-ed pages of the Times, now there isn’t a day without one. Likewise, I don’t always feel I am in a tiny minority in morning conference. On average though, I still think women are paid less than men, because they are not good at asking for pay rises. A WIJ seminar we did with a role play about how to ask for more money was very popular.

Glass ceilings are still a real problem in national papers, although less so in magazines. Looking at the number of senior executives, I think about 80% are men. Women are not being promoted enough and their views are not taken seriously enough in terms of commentary. Today all papers are targeting female readers. while men are more interested in what are thought to be women’s and family issues. Yet the depiction of women hasn’t changed much.

Suzanne Moore, Columnist, Mail on Sunday
I was a member of WIJ at the beginning. I went to the initial meeting when Eve Pollard and Amanda Platell were there. I’m not a member now, not because of any ideological difference. I just sort of drifted away.

I did one session where you give a talk and people ask questions. I spoke about being a columnist and found the kind of questions people asked were impossible to answer. “I work at Cross-stitch Weekly but want to move across to a knitting magazine, how can you help?” I couldn’t.

I think there’s a networking idea that has permeated the media and actually it’s bollocks. You get a job through what you write. I’ve never got a job through networking. Lots of people think if you turn up to the parties and meet the right people, it will all fall into place. It doesn’t.

The thing WIJ does which is good is people should know how much other people are paid. If you ask for more money they treat you as though you’d made some terrible faux pas.

I was always confused about what the group’s aims were. They talk about family-friendly policies, are they a union? Is it just a networking organisation? Is it just a place to ask for advice? Women in Journalism does have a place but what it could offer me now I don’t know.

I’d be happy to get behind any real campaign. You have to ask, who are the people getting promoted? Are women getting their jobs back after maternity leave? What is being done about sexual harassment? Women in newspapers should push much harder on those issues in their own work environment.

Linda Christmas, Former head of journalism, City University
WIJ was born in my little office here at City University. Journalists didn’t meet because Fleet Street was a diaspora and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get together? Journalists aren’t really joiners; they’re not good at getting together in a group. They’re too independent-minded.

What we did, very consciously, was get together a group of women who had succeeded, otherwise we would have been earmarked as whingers. That was wise. When we opened our mouths, we had to be informed, rather than speak from anecdotal experience.

I definitely want to see WIJ producing more good research because they’re all highly talented people with access. For me, the research we’ve done is the most important thing because it gives us gravitas. We were born out of a rant but now you have to prove your point.

I want to think about the “so what” factor. If women are just going to go on churning out the same news and the same newspapers, there’s no point. We have to be able to add value as women in executive roles.

The Financial Times has a job share for their news editor between two women. When women wanted to work in a job share in the past they got the gardening page. This is really great, because it means you can’t say anymore you can’t take a job because of the hours.

Jane Johnson, Editor, Closer magazine
There weren’t many female role models in senior national newspaper positions when I started out on my local paper the Southport Star 14 years ago. Although I was inspired by the success of trailblazing News of the World editor Wendy Henry and could look up to columnists like Lynda Lee-Potter, there was a sense that women had to fight tooth and (manicured) nail to get to these coveted positions. Now it’s different – there are three female red top editors. And, spurred on by this, many more ambitious young female reporters going into the business. But I’d say there is still a lack of women on backbenches, the production engine room of a paper is still seen as the macho end. In my experience women are perfectly good at writing brilliant headlines and doing arresting lay-outs. Now I’m fighting for men’s right to work in the increasingly challenging and competitive world of weekly magazines!

Sarah Kilby, Freelance journalist, Former editor, Woman and Home
I became involved in WIJ in 1995. My background is in magazines and I was concerned that very few women managed to get up to the board and they often disappeared after the age of 30. My major concern was about mentoring. I was a magazine editor at that point and was very concerned that not enough women were managing to get into the industry, especially on the business side. The seminars have been key. Women have a reputation for not sharing knowledge but that’s not actually true. Women at WIJ have been very generous with their experiences, happy to make themselves look silly by sharing their mistakes for the benefit of others.

Deborah Orr, Columnist, Independent
I was initially involved in WIJ but typically my job in journalism was so all-consuming, I didn’t have enough time to contribute. In the very beginning, there was no agenda to join for but it seemed to be shaping up as a networking organisation and that’s why my interest waned. When I first started in newspapers at the Guardian in 1990, there were hardly any women. There was Melanie Phillips, the women’s editor, and a few subs. In the past ten years, there have been lots of breakthroughs with women becoming editors but that was changing anyway. WIJ was more a consequence of that change than a driving force behind it.

I really find WIJ very peripheral. I have no awareness of what they’re doing. I think a campaigning group would be a good thing. A lot of women, even those who think they are feminists, don’t understand what it’s like to have children and how much it changes things. Men’s awareness needs to be changed but so does that of young single women.

The whole culture of journalism is macho and a lot of the time women are encouraged to act like men. The worrying part of WIJ was their idea that you needed to have a girls’ network to rival the old boys’ club. You have to act differently to change that culture rather than acting the same way. There is a dichotomy. You’re trying to challenge a culture that expects to work 60 hours a week, bring up children and still find time to campaign for change.

Lindsay Nicholson, Editor, Good Housekeeping, Chairperson of WIJ, 2002-2004
I wasn’t part of the original founding group. I came along later. WIJ are famous for their fantastic parties and I went along to one of those. Those parties are fabulous because you do really network. Women haven’t built up the sort of networks men have over the years and to underestimate their importance is naive. Women have been marginalised by not having access to their own role models.

At WIJ parties, the fact that editors like Rebekah Wade and Eve Pollard not only show up but are really active and talk to people who haven’t yet reached their position in the industry is extremely important. WIJ hasn’t changed how the media operates, that was changing anyway. It has provided a fantastic support for women coming into the industry.

The situation in 2005 is very different from that of 1995. A lot has changed but there is still an old boys’ network. Although the situation has dramatically improved in the past ten years, hopefully in ten years time WIJ will be irrelevant and men and women will be exchanging ideas freely without their having to be a gender split. The ideal would be if WIJ became an irrelevance. If women felt supported, confident and integrated enough, access to role models and turning up to parties and seminars would be unnecessary. WIJ is an organisation working for its own dissolution.

Jean Rafferty, Freelance journalist, Secretary WIJ Scotland
Eve Pollard came up to Edinburgh and threw a massive meeting there. I wanted to be involved because I’m an old-fashioned feminist and I agreed with what they were trying to do to keep women on the agenda. We seem to go forward then we step back. People think women have won equality and we haven’t.

I think WIJ was particularly effective when it was producing research. They did change the industry because with all those women’s contacts, they got things out to the public. Many high ranking women have been on the WIJ committee and that’s validated what we’re trying to do. Women’s subjects are on the agenda more in all newspapers but we’ve got an awfully long way to go because news reporting is still very male. Wars are reported in terms of casualties and “our boys” while humanitarian areas aren’t commented on.

WIJ could do more but the problem is most people on the committee are volunteers. WIJ can’t change the world on its own. The talks they put on in London are fantastic. I’d love to do the same in Scotland but we’re not a big enough pool. I just don’t have the time.

A lot more changes need to be made, especially in the way we report things. I’m a features writer and that’s regarded as a soft option but I’ve written about punishment beatings and I’ve been to Rwanda. The fact that the news agenda is still set by gung-ho men who settle things down the pub is frustrating.

Louise Chunn, Editor, In Style magazine
I was a founder member of WIJ and became involved because I could see working on a newspaper and looking around me, there weren’t as many women as men and very few women who were middle aged. I wondered where they had all gone.

Women do have better jobs but there are still issues to deal with. There still aren’t very many senior women. Not all women want those top jobs but it still seems they don’t get as many opportunities as men. It’s important to remind people there are differences.

Things have changed. There has been a trend towards the female columnist. But in general, it still comes out that men are better at asking for more money or are just given it.

WIJ might like to think it’s about research and campaigning, but it’s also about meeting other women in journalism who inspire you or who you can get a job through. If we were in America we’d say, it’s a networking organisation, get over it. Because we’re in Britain, we don’t. They think it’s somehow spurious, but it’s good. WIJ should be as multi-faceted as it can be without spreading themselves too thin. It should reflect its membership without too many senior members saying it should be about campaigning.

· Interviews by Phoebe A Greenwood and Rob Harris