Ranjona Banerji: Tokenism at its worst

08 Mar,2013

By Ranjona Banerji


International Women’s Day is upon us once again and as ever females are meant to be fooled into thinking that this day – March 8 – is about us. We are so lucky – governments have come up with special schemes for us, newspapers and now television are full of inspiring stories about women who have done extraordinary things and so many advertisements telling us that today is the right day to buy diamonds. I suspect that tomorrow is also the right day to buy diamonds as far as the diamond seller is concerned but for the rest, tomorrow we can get back to business as usual and put the inspiring women stories which could not be used into the folder for next year.


Do I sound nasty and bitter? The short answer: yes. This tokenism and these sweet little gestures around March 8 began to ring hollow quite a few years ago. I am grateful at least that this year no newspaper that I read has done the most token nod of all to women’s day: pulled a number of females out of features or wherever, patronisingly patted them on the head and made them editors for the day. On March 8 itself, they would have climbed down into their usual roles and write inspiring stories about how to suck a man’s toes in 16 different ways.


The gangrape in New Delhi on December 16, 2012 revealed to us just how shockingly patriarchal and anti-women our society was. In those days, I must concede, the media did a splendid job in focusing on women, women’s rights and the underlying prejudices in India. This year’s Women’s Day had plenty of scope to take that narrative further. Instead, the only piece I found worth reading was Mrinal Pande in The Indian Express trying to kill the myth of feminists and bra-burning.




There are a couple of things the media could do within to redress gender discrimination – starting with their newsrooms. Stop restricting women to features and women’s sections. And remove that glass ceiling that exists in many – though not all – newsrooms. I myself have benefitted from gender equality in some though not all jobs but there’s a long way to go, baby. How many women editors-in-chief do we have in Indian newspapers? All right, next question! News channels, it must be admitted, have done better than newspapers in India.


The other immediate task for the media should be to introduce workable and sensible sexual harassment laws in the work place and provide a suitable climate for people to complain, be heard and not be discriminated against later. While pointing fingers at everyone else’s shortcomings is an essential journalistic principle, a few penetrating glances at the media’s own misdemeanours would not come amiss.




Having said all that, here’s this. In just under 30 years of working in the media in India, the worst sexual discrimination I have experienced or seen was a World Association of Newspapers conference in Vienna in the 1990s. The theme was how editors and marketers could and could not work together. Raju Ramchandani was the publisher of Sunday Mid-day and I was editing Sunday Mid-Day at the time so we were sent as a marketer-editor team. Of the 150-odd delegates, over 95 per cent were white men from European newspapers. Raju and I were the only females in senior marketing and editorial positions. Most of the men initially treated us with great scepticism as if there is no way we could have achieved these posts through non-nefarious means. The only other women there were a senior PR person, a female reporter who had accompanied her male editor and a secretary.


I could add that there were also about six people of “colour”, apart from us, two men from Hong Kong and two men from Africa. The media as far as WAN representatives were concerned was evidently the domain of the White Man. Have things changed? I would be interested to know.




Prasoon Joshi of McCann Erickson has clearly told us that advertising cannot do anything but reflect what’s in society so no change can be expected from them, regardless of how many poems he writes or how much he weeps about the plight of women on public platforms. At least Josy Paul of BBDO has taken the bit within his teeth and his agency has come up with the “Soldiers for Women” campaign for Gillette.




So buy your diamonds, give your mother a call (though you could do that on Mother’s Day if you like), get some pink life insurance and enjoy the pap movies that will be shown on TV.


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