At first glance, Myanmar’s newsrooms don’t look too different from newsrooms anywhere else in the world. Rows of eager reporters hunch over their desks, punching at their keyboards. File that story. Edit that footage. Chase that source. It’s particularly unglamourous in Myanmar, where journalists are routinely harassed, threatened and imprisoned for reporting.
But women in newsrooms across the country fight other battles on the sidelines—against a society that deems journalism a man’s job, against harassment both in the field and in the workplace, and against a culture that holds women’s expertise to be less reliable than men’s.
People in Myanmar tend to confidently remark that women and men are already equals, thus negating the need for feminist action in the workplace or in the broader community. They point to the fact that Myanmar women gained suffrage in 1935—relatively early compared to regional neighbours. But a closer look at the rights and roles afforded to female staff members of local media organisations tells a different story.
Journalism: a man’s job?
According to student journalists at the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), the imbalances begin early.
When Hkawng Roi told her family of her intention to leave their home in Myitkyina, Kachin State, to study journalism in Yangon, her parents were “not really supportive”. Her uncle threatened to cut her off entirely if she pursued her dream.
“Not a lot of parents will encourage their girls to be journalists. They think it’s a man’s job, and that [girls] should just choose a different career path,” she says.
Sabae Hlaing, a seasoned journalist in her hometown in Mon States, agrees. She moved to Yangon to pursue further training at MJI, and says some of her peers leave the industry, reluctantly, due to pressure from their families or partner.
“The number of women in the industry is really low because they are not encouraged by their parents or their spouse. So many women journalists will quit their job after they get married or [some]… they like the job but some quit because their parents do not encourage them to stay in this industry,” she says.
“Not a lot of parents will encourage their girls to be journalists”
These stories stand in stark opposition to refrains about equality in work and life. Shortly after International Women’s Day, an op-ed in the state-owned daily Global New Light of Myanmar informed readers that “certain jobs, works and places are regarded as not suitable for [the] fairer gender. So these are marked only for men not because of discrimination but out of respect and regard for [the] fairer gender.”
The op-ed serves as a concise example of the doublethink employed when considering women’s status in the private and public spheres. The author notes several paragraphs later that, despite some occupations being unsuitable for women, “In public, Myanmar women are on par with men in every field, business, service, education etc. In addition to the domestic duties of their families Myanmar women prove in some cases with their feminine business acumen and gift better than their male counterparts.”
Divisions of labour
Once in the workplace, many women say they don’t enjoy the same upward mobility as their male counterparts.
Jane Stageman, who runs gender awareness training with international human development organisation FHI360, says women in the newsrooms aren’t shy about airing their concerns. Once the sessions are underway, many complain about being saddled with domestic chores like clearing up mugs and plates. She says management teams must work to change the office culture.
“I think each organisation has to decide where it wants to start. Is it the culture it wants to tackle? Is it actually that there’s no real voice for women in the organisation? Is it that the leadership style isn’t quite right, in terms of actually hearing what’s going on?” she says.
But when management teams in the industry are predominantly comprised of men, agitating for change can be an uphill battle. One of the strategies recommended by FHI360 is the formation of a gender committee tasked with advocating for structural reform of workplace policies around issues like harassment, promotions and parental entitlements.
Harassment and inappropriate comments are all too familiar to women in any workplace. Su Chay, a reporter for a local magazine, and Tin Htet Paing, a freelance journalist, both describe instances of harassment from colleagues and interviewees, including one high-profile government staffer.
When Tin Htet Paing and her colleague approached him to ask follow up questions, he berated the pair for their clothing choices
According to Tin Htet Paing, she was dispatched by her editor to cover a press conference held by a municipal official. When she and her colleague approached him to ask follow up questions, he berated the pair for their clothing choices. Tin Htet Paing had been wearing black trousers and a blouse.
“When we approached he said, ‘Don’t you know how to dress formally? It is a conference and you are not dressed professionally,’” she says. He then went on to compare them to women from another broadcaster dressed in htamein, the traditional skirt for women in Myanmar.
“He wouldn’t do it to any male reporter, he was more concerned with how we dressed than what kind of questions we were asking. It’s already three or more years later but I still remember my anger at the time,” she says.
But these challenges don’t stop women from the business of newsmaking. Like most journalists around the world, Myanmar women see the job as a calling, a special role that allows them behind-the-scenes access as their country undergoes significant change.
Frontline war reporting remains largely the domain of men, and Su Chay says that’s to the detriment of quality journalism. Women, she explains, have a knack for speaking to the victims of the country’s myriad conflicts. On a recent trip to Kachin State, she found that families living in a displacement camp opened up to her.
“They [IDPs] are pretty fragile and not comfortable talking to people, especially men. As a woman journalist talking to the women there, in that kind of situation, I think they are comfortable talking to me,” she says.
Growing the number of female voices in the media landscape is a crucial element in the country’s broader battle for press freedom and true democracy—and men in the industry are being put on notice.
The groundbreaking Gender in Myanmar News report, released in 2017 by the Myanmar Women’s Journalists Society and International Media Society (IMS), highlighted the dearth of female sources cited in Myanmar-language media; only 16% of the sources in news coverage were women.
Su Chay thinks her male colleagues know they should be including women in their reportage, but “they just don’t want to accept it. Because I think, they belittle women and women’s ability.”
It’s a vicious circle: without female representation in the mainstream media, young girls and boys repeatedly absorb the notion that a woman’s place is in the home—that women are not credible, professional experts.
There are parts of the media industry where women are better represented, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Broadcast organisations are proactive about recruiting women for presenter roles in news and entertainment: research conducted by IMS found that 66% of television presenters are women, far outnumbering the use of female sources.
“Most of the stations think that as a TV viewer, a woman’s face will attract more [viewers] to watch the channel,” says Sagawah Aung, a trainer at the Democratic Voice of Burma’s Multimedia Academy. She adds that the risk of rumours and unwanted advances can deter female journalists from going into the field with male counterparts. Her current cohort at the Multimedia Academy, though, has an equal number of male and female trainees, so she’s hopeful that diversity will increase.
A dearth of role models
One student at MJI, when asked who her role models are, struggled to name a single female reporter. She finally settled on a tutor.
It makes sense. It’s hard for anyone to picture themselves in a job they’ve never seen done by someone like them. Research on the importance of role models indicates that young women benefit most from the presence of professional exemplars.
Myanmar’s peace process is lagging, and press freedom is facing a decline not seen under the previous administration. The role that female journalists have to play is key—without equal representation, there can be few meaningful strides made in the democratic transition.
Women and children are disproportionately displaced by the country’s long-running civil wars, yet their voices are not heard
Nowhere is this absence more stark than in the ongoing peace talks, convened between the government, the military, and the country’s plethora of ethnic armies. Despite a stated goal of 30% representation, women accounted for only 7% and 20% of government and ethnic group delegates, respectively.
Women and children are disproportionately displaced by the country’s long-running civil wars, yet their voices are not heard during the negotiations that are meant to bring peace to their communities. It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of the government, ethnic armies and the military for leaving women behind. But if reporters, with the support of their editors, know where to seek out the few women available, then their perspectives can be amplified.
To that end, Tin Htet Paing says women can, and should, assume their positions on the frontlines of the country’s media and political landscape because “women’s issues are everybody’s issues.”
“We always have different discussions and different perspectives. If you don’t have women reporters or journalists all these different opinions and perspectives will be hidden and there will not be enough voices,” she says.
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