Gendered Journalism in China: From Newsrooms to Classrooms

"I was told again and again that in order to survive in the newsroom, the ability to navigate in the sexist environment was an essential skill. I heard stories that were far more disturbing than mine".

By Haiyan Wang*

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.

I still remember the first week I was a journalist. I was 22, freshly graduated from college. I had moved from Shanghai on the east coast of China to Guangzhou by the southern sea and joined a metropolitan newspaper there that was established not long before in the wave of media commercialization reform. It was 1999, seven years after the reformist leader Deng Xiaoping made his famous “South Tour Talk” to call for the suspension of ideological struggle and the liberalization of a market economy following the 1989 crisis. Guangzhou was one of the frontline cities Deng Xiaoping had chosen to experiment with his new policy, and it was in that context that the newspaper I came to join was established. The newspaper developed very fast and soon became recognized nationwide as one of the most liberal and influential media outlets in the country. But at the time I joined it, it was in its early stages. Its influence hadn’t yet grown, and the newsroom, which was very small indeed, was filled with journalists migrating from inland regions to pursue fortune and life-changing opportunities in this coastal city, the so-called “land of hope”.

I was the only college graduate to join this newspaper that summer. I looked different, fresh, and perhaps exciting to my colleagues. First because I was a woman, and a young woman-so young that a taxi driver who took me to the site of a fire asked whether I was a “high-school student”. Second, I held a formal journalism degree from an elite university while most of my colleagues at that time didn’t even attend college. I looked like an “oddball” in this newsroom. So, my colleagues decided to
give me a “test” to see whether I could fit in. They called me to a common room. The door was closed. There were five to six people, mostly men. Obviously, they were enjoying some winding-down time in the late afternoon before rushing to finish their reports of the day. The air was thin, filled with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol. In the middle of the room, there was a tea table, scattered with a pack of cards.

The others led me to the table. One male colleague pointed to a puddle of glue they had
intentionally poured on the edge of the table, and asked me, “what is it?” (You need to
know that in the old days the glue used in most workplace was made out of thick rice
milk and looked a lot like semen). I immediately understood what they wanted from
me. I didn’t give them a straight answer, like “it is glue”, because it seemed unplayful.
Instead, I went the sensational way. I covered my face with both hands and called out,
“Aha! Disgusting!” Apparently, my colleagues were satisfied by my reaction. “She
knows it!” The room busted into a round of laughter. After that, I worked for nine years in that newsroom.

As I reflect back now on my journalist’s career, I often come to revisit this moment. I
ask myself why I reacted in that way, and would it have been different if I had reacted
otherwise, such as turning cold-faced and telling them it was a bad joke and not funny? I try to analyze myself. I come to a resolution with myself. Understandably, for a newcomer in the workplace, social pressure is often something unavoidable. Perhaps I just wanted to show my colleagues that I didn’t want to be an “oddball”, I wanted to be part of them, I was playful just like them, and I could take jokes, even is such a blatantly sexist joke. Looking back from today, I realize I may have appeared to be too eager, too cooperative, and too quick to let go of my principles. But
subconsciously maybe I knew that I had to be strategic in order to be accepted by my
colleagues. Perhaps that was the “right” attitude that allowed me to stay in the job for
nearly a decade.

In my later career as a journalism researcher and educator, I interviewed many women
journalists about their experiences in newsrooms. I came to realize that my encounters
were not exceptional. I was told again and again that in order to survive in the
newsroom, the ability to navigate in the sexist environment was an essential skill. I
heard stories that were far more disturbing than mine. For instance, a mid-career
reporter who also worked in Guangzhou told me that she hated the frequent “going-
outs” with colleagues after work but had to appear willing to participate and act as if
she enjoyed these occasions. The “going-outs”, usually organized in the evening in a
restaurant, a tea house or a bar near the office area, were not just about eating and
drinking, but more about forming special bonds with the editors and getting important
assignments and opportunities for promotion.

Ambitious as she was, she often felt obliged to join the party, even though it meant that she had to play a role she didn’t like and take part in the flirting games. Her cooperation didn’t gain her the promotion she deserved, but yield some opportunities for her to cover important news stories,
such as the National People’s Congress meeting in Beijing, among others. But not every woman is as flexible and “lucky” as she is. I also heard stories from women journalists who refused to cooperate even though they faced huge social pressure. As a journalist who had just left the profession told me: ‘When they made sexist jokes to me, I often returned a cold face. I didn’t want to react in the way they expected, like… laughing, returning another joke…. But gradually I noticed the consequences. They saw me as a boring and uninteresting person, because I am not playful. I felt I was isolated. It was getting very hard. So, I quit.’ (quoted in H. Wang, 2016, p.501)

What these women’s experiences have taught me is that sexism is not just about a culture of peer-socialization, but also a gender-based politics and a mechanism of inclusion or exclusion in the newsroom. Like other scholars have discovered in the Western context, newsrooms are often like a “blokes club” (North, 2016), and women are routinely under the pressure to become “one of the boys” (van Zoonen, 1998). You accept, you are in. You refuse, you are out. That is the dominating logic in the workplace, and the middle path is only available to the few who have access to social, financial or political capital (Djerf-Pierre, 2005). Not to mention that, in the Chinese context, there is a deep-rooted conception that women are men’s objects. Even though they have become independent working women, part of their perceived job in the workplace is to create a delightful working environment for their male colleagues, especially the powerful ones. As a male journalist told me when I interviewed him about his views on his female colleagues:

‘They should make the boss feel it is pleasant to have them around. This way, they will have good chances in their careers even though they can’t make good journalism’. (quoted in H. Wang, 2016, p.501)

His comments expressed the explicit gender-based discrimination confronting women, but he was completely non-reflexive about this. Even though he knew that the interviewer in front of him, me, was formerly a woman journalist too, he had no intention of shying away from his contempt. Sadly, it is not only him. This kind of unsympathetic and unrespectful view of women is common in newsrooms, as well as in the general society in China.

Back to my journalism career, I encountered more and more such “jokes” from my
colleagues as time went by. Sometimes it was a picture of a naked woman model that
they invited me to view. Sometimes they shared with me a comment on the body or
bodily movement of a female colleague. I was mostly cooperative, never thought it
was necessary to take a more serious approach. Even worse, I didn’t see any
problems. Even though I was uncomfortable when such jokes were made at my
expense, I thought it was standard and normal. I thought, in a mixed-gender and often
times stressful working environment, some jokes could soften the tension and light up
the atmosphere. It seemed there was nothing wrong, and no need to feel offended.
Like most of my colleagues at that time, I hadn’t developed a sensitivity about gender
issues, hadn’t had the critical mindset to question why most of the “jokes” are about
women and directed to women. I had been totally blind to sexism, not having been
able to recognize it, not having had the guts to challenge it.

I am not alone. I am just a typical example of a generation of journalists in China who
joined newsrooms during the same time period, the 1990s, which happened to be the
start of the so-called “golden age” of Chinese journalism (H. Wang, 2021). We were
all so busy breaking news, pursuing explosive stories that would sell newspaper
copies and getting established in the industry that we took no time to look inwardly,
reflect on own values and actions, and examine whether anything was wrong in our
own backyard.

The limitations I had were almost universal for those of my generation, and were
produced by the set of political, economic, social and cultural conditions in which we
lived. I came from a small town in Hubei Province in the central part of China. I grew
up in an environment where, by tradition, the fathers were the breadwinners and the
mothers were the homemakers. Even though I was the older child in the family, I was
raised to believe that my brother, who is two years younger, was more important than
me, and that I, as a girl, should always put his interests before mine. In my whole
childhood and even young adulthood, I remember one thing my parents, especially
my mother, kept telling me: “You are a girl.” She reminded me of that over and over.
The implication was that a girl should always do a girl’s deed. For instance, she
should always be virtuous and caring, always be humble and tolerant, never challenge
men or outshine them, behave properly according to what the society thinks is right
for a girl or woman. Those are powerful, almost sacred, social expectations, so
powerful that for many years I worried that if I became “not like a girl”, I would not
only disappoint my family, but also destroy myself and would never be redeemed.
Nobody explained to me that there was something called a “gender stereotype”, and
that I might be another victim suffering from its damaging effects.

Neither had the professors taught me in this regard when I went to college. As one of
the top students in the high school in my hometown, I was admitted to the journalism
school in Fudan University in Shanghai. I was thrilled about going to college and
being in the big city. But I felt nothing in particular about the fact that most of my
classmates were men and most of our professors were men also. These were facts I
was only to “discover” or take notice of years later after leaving the college.
In college, both practice-based and theory-based courses were offered to prepare us to
become competent future journalists, but as far as I can recall, none of the courses
discussed gender or any issues related to diversity. I don’t remember anything ever
being taught on this subject during the four years of courses. In our minds (as well as
the professors’ minds), “gender” was a biological given, it was non-questionable. The
idea that gender is a social construction was beyond our horizon. What’s more, the
word meaning “gender”, xing, also means “sex”. Talking about xing could be easily
taken as talking about sex. Therefore, it could sound shameless, disrespectable,
immoral and at the same time anti-Communist, as the ruling Communist Party
subscribed to a kind of asexual ideology.

In short, at that time, sexism didn’t exist in our vocabulary, and gender was not an
issue. The only relevant conceptual tool we possessed was the self-congratulatory
idea of “state-feminism”. According to official policy, women and men were equal.
But in practice, state turned a blind eye to the hurdles preventing women’s liberation.
As Z. Wang (2015, p. 519) commented, it was in effect a kind of “state patriarchy”,
“often with vacillation and inconsistency”.

The landscape of journalism education in China is very different today. In 1998, just
one year before I graduated from Fudan, the Ministry of Education officially granted
journalism (and communications) the status of a first-tier discipline in the social
sciences, a recognition that spurred the rapid expansion of journalism education
across the country. The number of journalism programs increased from just over a
thousand in the late-1990s to more than 1,500 in the 2020s, enrolling some 14,000
students at the undergraduate level and 7,000 students at the graduate level each year
(CAHJC, 2021; Hu & Leng, 2016; Guo & Chen, 2017; R. Wang, 2020). Such a
massive increase in student enrollment calls for education reform regarding the
recruitment of teaching faculties, structure of the curriculum, design of the syllabus
and course outlines, and publication of textbooks (Chen, 2020). Relevant actions have
been taken, but unfortunately many of the blind spots in the journalism educational
system continue to persist. One of those blind spots has been the lack of sensitivity to
gender and diversity issues.

Take journalism curriculum as an example. Journalism curriculum in China is usually
divided into four categories: GE (general education) compulsory courses, GE elective
courses, specialization compulsory courses and specialization elective courses. The

GE courses aim to provide students with general social science knowledge, and the
specialization courses target professional training, which includes skills like news-
gathering, interviewing, writing and editing, media management, media ethics,
content curation and design, lab practice, internship practice, and so on. In a study I
did for MDI in 2022, I surveyed the undergraduate journalism curricula currently used
in five journalism schools in Guangdong province 1 . I found that among the overall
600+ courses listed in their catalogues, only two directly addressed the issue of
gender. The first was the “Media and Gender” course at Shantou University (STU),
and the second was “Gender Justice and Media” at South China University of
Technology (SCUT). The other three universities (Sun Yat-sen University, Shenzhen
University, and Jinan University) had no such courses listed.

While the STU students I interviewed said they cherished the opportunity to take the
“Media and Gender” course, the SCUT students told me that their “Gender Justice
and Media” course only existed in name and has not been offered for many years. I
asked why, and their answers were, “It was offered in our final year. Our credits are
already full and no need to have extra” (H, interviewed on 20 March 2022), or, “very
few students elected the course. It didn’t meet the minimum criteria of student
enrollment” (G, interviewed on 20 March 2022). All of the reasons the students gave
sounded understandable. It seemed that it could almost have been an “accident” that
they didn’t end up taking any gender-related courses.

But it was an inevitable “accident” if we consider a comparison with the “Marxist
theory of journalism” course, which all five universities listed in their journalism
curricula. This course is required by the government as part of an effort to strengthen
political education in the journalism discipline, and exists not only in the universities I
studied but also in almost every J-school in China. This course is classified as
“specialization compulsory”, and the course policy states that students won’t be
granted a graduation certificate if they don’t take it. All five universities offered the
course in the first year of study, and allowed students to make it up in subsequent
years if by any chance they missed it initially.

On the contrary, the gender course is “specialization elective”. The offering of the
course depends on the availability of the faculty, and taking the course depends solely
on the availability and interests of the students. There are no structural
arrangements—like requiring all students to take it—to guarantee its stability. Not to
mention that most J-schools don’t even have a gender-related course. This contrast
indicates how marginal the gender concept is in the overall structure of journalism
education. It also raises the deeper concern that journalism students–our future
journalists–have little opportunity to be educated about the gender issues in their
formative years in college.

More worryingly, journalism educators don’t consider this absence to be a pressing
problem. In a study based on interviews with 16 faculty members at the major J-
schools in China, the interviewees were asked to list the courses that they think should
be included when revising their curricula. A total of 64 new course titles were
proposed. More than half of these were on journalism and new media skills, but none
was related to gender or other diversity issues (Chen, 2020). In other words, gender
education in Chinese J-schools suffers from a dual blindness: one being its absence in
the curriculum, and the other being the ignorance of or indifference to this absence on the part of journalism educators.

Given this deficit, the intervention of activist groups such as MDI is critical. As a
long-time member of MDI’s international community of journalism researchers and
educators, I have been honored to participate in various activities organized by MDI,
including talks, workshops and visits. The concept of “media diversity” has deeply
influenced my thinking, which in turn has benefited my teaching and been expressed
in the changes I have seen in my journalism students. One of the most unforgettable
experiences was in 2016, when I invited and hosted five MDI experts, who came from
the U.K., Australia and New Zealand to spend a week each with me and my students
in Guangzhou. It was a never-before (and perhaps never-again) experience for my
students. It gave them an opportunity to be immersed in an intellectual world that is
totally different from what the mainstream journalism education in China offered
them. It opened their eyes to a variety of diversity issues (i.e. gender, age, religion,
migration, race and ethnicity, etc.), which they had seldom questioned before. It made
them reflect on the privileges they have enjoyed and have taken for granted for so
long. It also made them think about hard questions regarding diversity, inclusivity and
equality and what they might do in their future careers as journalist to promote social
justice, especially that of marginalized social groups. I am glad to see that many of
them have already begun to shine in reporting about diversity in their media jobs. I
firmly believe that MDI has contributed to making this change.

*Haiyan Wang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, University of Macau. She received her Ph.D. from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, MA from University of Westminster, UK., and BA from Fudan University, China