When I arrived in Manila in 2005 on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship to spend a year working at a broadcast network, I was surprised by how many women held leadership positions throughout the Filipino media. In my experience, most U.S. newsrooms were led by men. Many talented female journalists I knew in my six years working in the U.S. had struggled to maintain a work-life balance in their careers, and some had given up high-profile jobs to take care of their families.
Women against “envelopmental” journalism
Women make up 41 percent of the U.S. media workforce, but just 23 percent of top-level management, according to a 2011 International Women’s Media Foundation survey. In the Philippines, the same survey found that women held 34.5 percent of top management jobs. The women I knew — those running news operations at major television networks or who had started their own news organizations — were an impressive group. They caused a shift in the industry, moving away from “envelopmental journalism,” or taking envelopes of money for favorable coverage of a politician or businessman. Their goal was to change journalism, and by doing so, change their country. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they failed – corruption persists not only in the media, but politics and business. But the women I knew were always striving to lead by example. Their reporting was fearless, even when they received death threats because of their work.
Matriarchs and helpers
I thought I had found a place where women could excel without limits. It seemed like there was no glass ceiling and no need to give up a career to have a family. But the professional women I met in the Philippines had support systems my American colleagues did not. They all had “help” — nannies, maids and drivers — to take care of tasks that women in the U.S. did on their own while holding down a job. Plus, their newsrooms seemed to foster an environment where women at all levels could thrive. Women covered terror groups, coup attempts, the military and the highest levels of government. One of my friends, a television news anchor, was pregnant and planning to come back to work shortly after her baby was born. She didn’t seem to struggle with the decision, and no one expected her to do anything differently. There were no “mommy wars.”
“We are a matriarchal society,” journalist and author Marites Vitug told me recently when I asked her why women in the Philippines hold so many top leadership positions in the media. Vitug, the author of four books, a co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalist and one of the founders of a well-respected investigative magazine, Newsbreak. “We’ve had two female presidents. Really, in our society, it’s the mothers who are quite powerful and dominate a lot of families here.” Women in the Philippines excel not only in the media, but also politics and business. The World Economic Forum ranked the Philippines number eight in gender equality — the U.S. was ranked 17 — and second highest in terms of female legislators, senior officials and managers among the 135 countries surveyed. The IWMF survey noted that the Philippines has a “tradition of strong women who assert themselves in family and public life.” What I saw at work certainly supported this statement. What I saw outside the newsroom and Manila’s privileged enclaves showed how numbers don’t tell whole stories.
The short, bleak road to Malabon
Before meeting with a source in a slum in Malabon, one of 17 cities that make up Metro Manila, my colleagues told me to make sure I wore knee-high rain boots. It was the rainy season, and the area I was visiting flooded easily and frequently. The stagnant waters, they told me, carried deadly diseases.
I was visiting a women’s health clinic that provided checkups and contraceptives for women who wanted to stop having children but couldn’t afford birth control. My hosts gave me a tour of the two small, sparse floors of the clinic, a cement and cinder block building wedged between structures made of corrugated metal and cinder block. The neighborhood suffered from sporadic electricity and regular violent crime. The floods had receded that day, but I could see how the slum’s conditions would only get worse with too much rain. The patients at the Malabon clinic were the lucky ones — many poor women in the Philippines lack any access to birth control and basic healthcare. Malabon lay just a few miles away from my office, a TV newsroom at the country’s largest broadcast network. But the women I met at the clinic led completely different lives from the ambitious and talented women who ran my newsroom.
For professional women in the Philippines, perhaps there really is no glass ceiling. But for other women — some who work in domestic roles, supporting professional women, taking care of their children and households, some who live in slums like the one I saw in Malabon — opportunity seemed elusive or irrelevant in the face of daily struggles for food, clean water, safe housing and healthcare. I have always wanted to believe that more women in leadership roles — whether in media, business, or government — could create a society where all women have equal opportunity. The issue, as with so many others, is much more complex. And while some women in the Philippines are defining information consumed by an entire nation, others lack access to basic care so many take for granted. Returning from the Philippines, women journalists in the U.S. seem to have made progress. Arianna Huffington leads a major U.S. media force. Jill Abramson is managing editor at The New York Times. Having women at the top doesn’t guarantee a better workplace for women, here or in the Philippines. But for women who want to be journalists, these are good signs, and it’s a start.
Due to a reporting error, this story originally cited Marites Vitug as the founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Reporting. She is a co-founder of the organization.