Enjoying the WFH experience while women struggle for roles in India

COVID challenges of working from home, being a woman in India's 'boys club'...

Hook up a dozen people virtually - whether they are journalists or conference speakers, in different locations or time zones - and they just get the job done, apparently enjoying the process.

That's the COVID-19 experience of many publishers, but also of delegates to this second day of WAN-Ifra's Indian Media Leaders eSummit.

First Norwegian Ingeborg Volen - one of several European and specifically Scandinavian, participants - brought more wisdom to the event, reporting how many journalists were finding working from a home a positive experience, although her extrovert personality might make her an exception.

Then Dhanya Rajendran and four other Indian journalists in different parts of the country, provided views and examples of the challenges presented to women in journalism... dogs, children and screeching car horns included.

Volen, a board member of WAN-Ifra's World Editors' Forum, drew from experience as publishing strategy and visual journalism editor at Norway's Dagens Næringsliv (or DN), the country's third-largest newspaper.

A business newspaper with a broader outlook renowned for its investigative journalism - and its expensive subscription - it's medium-sized by Norwegian standards with 180 staff of which 110 are in the newsroom.

Or in fact, not in the newsroom: since March, about half have been working from home, as the digital and print publisher went through a process of first, managing the crisis; fully capable within a month, although finding the impact on advertising hard to handle; responding to "the greatest interest in news in my lifetime", while travelling nowhere; and lately, facing the challenge of "being creative".

"There have been so many positives of the experience," she says, "with some colleagues saying that it was the best thing that happened to them.

"Not for me, however. I'm an extreme extrovert - newsrooms were built for me - but editorial colleagues in an online meet-up this week (pictured) were certain it was how they would like to work.

"They're getting more work done, and while I wouldn't have thought team culture was possible, for many it's absolutely fine, and they'd do it for as long as they have to."

Volen, who admits to needing to "walk round a park" occasionally to discuss a point with a colleague, says there are some obstacles, among them breaking news - which requires really quick collaboration - and running a creative meeting, where it's hard to replicate the dynamics of people pitching stories. "Being creative means bouncing ideas off people, photographers, reporters, and managers," she says.

She's clear that the newsroom of tomorrow will work quite differently. "What takes a conscious effort is thinking as manager; what it takes for people to thrive, and that - if this is to continue as the new normal - caring for the wellbeing of staff is the new challenge when all you do is see them on screen".

Questions like, 'are we responsible for their working conditions', and 'how do we build culture, drive change and implement strategy.

"Maybe it will be going out for meals in socially-distanced setting," she says.

Delegate questions reflected the same concerns: if we no longer need big newsrooms, what form will they take in 2021; how do you ensure mental health is not affected? Volen is not sure you can. "I was going crazy by week two," she says. "I needed the in-person process, but people are really different and some, though not all, are happy... and it doesn't do to always let them have their way."

As some normality returns, DN is experimenting with 50-50, prioritising the collaborative things. "I'd allow staff a lot more flexibility about where and when they work; biggest question is how to get the right people together in the office, striking the balance is the new challenge."

Tech-wise, the publisher had already started the change which included a cloud-based print system two years before, starting the process of cultural change, and "really glad we didn't have to do that this spring".

And finally, "if there's one thing we've been thinking more about it, it's where do we stop managing and start leading. Leadership is much more important."

Talk about women in news, and you open the whole Pandora's box of being a woman in India at all.

In the conference's virtual environment, Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief of thenewsminute.com, did an amazing job of juggling the views of four female journalists on media leadership and inclusiveness in a "boys' club" of industry in which women account for only five per cent of participants.

To start with, says Seema Chishti, you'd have to look at all the other axes of discrimination, at how castes and minorities are represented. "Diversity should be represented in the newsroom, and appointments made on merit," she says, while Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma bilks at being called a woman journalist at all. "We don't talk about man journalists, and we need to be judged in 'ten bests' on merit, regardless of sex.

"Women are often far more reflective, while men (usually two vocal men) tend to dominate meetings, leaving women with a confidence gap. Maybe they should listen."

Some issues, says Kavitha Muralidharan, are simply handled better by women, citing reporting of rape victims as an example, while Geeta Seshu talked of the "strange relationship" in media, in which women work as objects, and are addressed as different audiences. "There's very little discussion on this, and the issue of leadership in news is very different," she says. "At entry level, we find we don't have any policies which understand diversity; we struggle in very ghettoised roles, and those who want to move ahead find other stumbling blocks.

"One women from Bangladesh told me a woman's biological clock kicks in 'just as we are peaking as journalists' and they are denied an enabling environment."

Sexual harassment, the male-dominated "site of power" which decides agendas and what men will share, who writes the op-eds...all are topics of concern. "Reporting is shared, but with power at the top, men are very stingy," she says.

"It would help for both men and women to unlearn what they've learned," says Dhanya Rajendran, while Geeta Seshu mentions the important role women play, reaching out to one another, and with skill development. "We need to support and advocate the promotion of women - they just get stuck at the middle level."

It's a virtual conference, and in the background you hear children, cries, car horns, a reminder of the constant pressure.

For all its faults, Seema Chishti adds a positive note: "I'm proud of journalism," she says. "It's one profession women have been able to enter, and does afford an interesting point to women. There's nothing women can't do."

But finally, "while it's merit that matters, it depends on society as well as the newsroom".

Pictured (from left): Dhanya Rajendran, Kavitha Muralidharan, Geeta Seshu, Supriya Sharma, and Seema Chishti

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