Inday Espina-Varona: "A younger generation of women journalists are more conscious of their rights as workers"

Inday is the Convenor, Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity arts and media alliance. She is the former chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

Inday Espina-Varona

What are the consequences of this lack of women in managing positions in media?

In the Philippines, women mostly rule the newsrooms across all platforms of legacy and new media. But males dominate as owners and shareholders of many legacy media firms. Many still hew to orthodox paradigms of employer-employee relations that apply in other industries, models that have made it a slog for women workers to win support systems in the work place.

Because many owners have business and political interests to protect, these sometimes result to tensions between news desks and owners.

As a woman who reached a leadership position, have you faced any obstacle because of your gender? If yes, which ones?

I remember my first day as a young desk editor in a national daily barely two years after the restoration of democracy.

The first words a senior editor told me was, “the last time I saw you, you were still in panties.” (He was a colleague of my father.)

I didn’t personally face any serious obstacle but we had to work more hours, and show more toughness and dedication, to get ahead as the pre-martial male journalists returned to the newsrooms.

This toughness was expressed in the old macho notions that we felt a need to imitate — sexist language included to a certain extent. We were faced with all these macho elders and thought for some time that to get ahead we had out-macho them.

So we were most likely exploited, paid less for double the work that others did. And we were suckers for heavy workload because we wanted to “prove” ourselves.

I spent some years actually buying into the “no cry babies” culture until the need to struggle for rights took root. It also took some years for us to earn the confidence to infuse gender sensitivity into news gathering and production.

How can we solve this situation? Considering your personal experience, what would you suggest to reach gender equality in media?

My “wake-up” moment involved a conversation with a proofreader who told me: “You work hard but you go home to a place where others take care of you and your children. We go home and still have to take care of the world.”

So, yes, there was a class thing going on with all the feminist awakening and I wasn’t very aware my slip was showing. Maybe because we were focused on winning back press freedom and keeping threats at bay. Achievements then were premised on individual output and sometimes there were blinders in terms of the economic and work burdens that colleagues faced.

Which is why I am very happy to see a revival of union work and women taking a greater role in campaigning and winning battles — including for security of tenure.

A younger generation of women journalists are more conscious of their rights as workers and more assertive in challenging employers over rights and welfare.

This is of equal importance as the fight for press freedom. It leads to better productivity and work, not to mention professional integrity; still a lot of work convincing owners of media companies, especially those publicly listed, to recognise this. In the smaller news outfits, there is better appreciation of the needs of women workers.

What are you doing at the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines for women?

I’m no longer in the board of the NUJP but through the years it has played an important role in helping women workers in media combat sexism in the industry and the beats we cover.

The NUJP has also stepped up its work with unions and helped organisations campaigning for better economic rights to wage battles on various fronts.

The NUJP has had women in leadership positions. Two of us have served as chairpersons; women have served as secretary-generals, as safety officers, and there is gender parity in the NUJP board.

What could be the role of men journalists and media leaders in this process?

Men in journalism should be open to the reality of discrimination and sexism, whether overt or subtle, acknowledge these and join campaigns to have clear standards and instruments of redress.

In the era of Duterte, where misogyny is part of top governance and unleashed in attacks against critical media, our colleagues in the NUJP and other media organisations stand with us.

But we need more men to speak out against this. Some media executives and owners, some anchors with cosy relations to this regime are often complicit in downplaying the extent of the abuse and even add to it.

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