This was one front-page story that ended up in the back of the paper. For four weeks last fall, a group of researchers scanned page one in 11 major newspapers. They weren't reading words, they were counting bylines.
The bottom line of the bylines was that only one of every four of the stories located in that prime piece of newspaper turf carried a woman's name. Moreover, as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund survey showed, there were some wide and wild differences between these papers. In some dailies the number of page-one women matched the percentage of women reporters. In others, the women were kept in the back of the book.
The youngest of the papers, USA Today, had the most females up front: 41.5 percent. The elderly "paper of record," The New York Times, had the fewest: a dismal 10 percent. The others scored this way: The Boston Globe 30.5 percent, the Atlanta Journal 30.1, The Washington Post 26.3, the Detroit Free Press 26.2, the Cleveland Plain Dealer 22.6, the Chicago Tribune 19.2, The Wall Street Journal, 18.8, the Philadelphia Inquirer, 18.4, and the Los Angeles Times, 17.7 percent.
In some ways the study was good news. The researchers had to go to page one to find these inequities. Newspapers have changed enough so that women are filling in behind the front lines. Over half the students in journalism schools are now female. About 40 percent of the conglomerate of reporters and editors listed in the Labor Department's Bureau of Statistics are women.
But the bad news is these women aren't getting equal prime space. After all, the front page is still the front page. This is where the big story, the news that editors label "important," gets placed. Only a minority of women are filling that space.
The media not only reports what's happening in the larger society, it reflects what's happening. This study reflects "the big plateau" that now ranges all across the professions. The entry-level jobs are much more open; women are now getting stuck at a higher level.
"They still aren't making it to the top," says Kathy Bonk, who heads the LDEF's Women in the Media Project. The women in broadcasting are also stuck, according to a similar study her group did last year. Only 10.2 percent of the stories on the network news were reported by women correspondents.
But in many ways, the big achievement in journalism isn't getting on page one. It's deciding who and what gets on page one. It's defining and assigning the "important" story. It's being an editor.
The record on that score is much worse than the one reported in this survey. Dorothy Jurney, a retired newspaper editor and now researcher, has reported that there are fewer women making policy in newspapers than in the construction industry. Only 11 percent of the high-level editors in the country are women, most of them on smaller papers.
The 57 papers with more than 250,000 readers have only 8.5 percent female editors. Indeed only 24 of these papers have even one woman in a policy-making job. There are more women in the Reagan Cabinet meetings than in most editorial meetings.
There are a lot of theories about the current plateau in journalism. They'll sound familiar to women in other professions. There is less room near the peak of a pyramid and less mobility. Women have just amassed enough numbers to begin an inexorable push upward. In time, they will inevitably percolate to the top.
But before you buy that theory, remember one law of physics: Nothing percolates unless you apply a whole lot of heat.