Spotlight interview with Nadezda Azhgikhina (RUJ –Russia)

"Promoting gender equality and respecting diversity"

The majority of journalists in Russia are women. But they still need to overcome stereotypes and inequality. Nadezda Azhgikhina is a memberof the Gender Council (*) of the International Fedration of Journalists (IFJ) and a member of the national board of the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) where she is responsible for international projects and exchanges. As a specialist in gender issues, she believes gender training is still needed, particularly for media and trade union leaders. In the run up to the ITUC World Women’s Conference, to be held in Brussels in October, she stresses the need for an exchange of experiences and to respect the diversity of approaches in elaborating a global strategy for equality.

Could you give me a brief presentation of the main stages in your career?

I started working as a journalist when I was very young. My first publications appeared in a national youth newspaper (with a circulation of 17 million copies – it was during the time of the USSR) when I was a teenager. I joined the newspaper as a regular journalist after graduation from Moscow State University, and worked after that as journalist for the national weekly Ogoniok (Little Flame) magazine, the symbol of perestroyka and democratization in the USSR, and after that I became the department chair. I joined the editorial board of the magazine when I was 30 – the only female and the youngest on the board. Everybody liked me as a journalist and a person, but I immediately faced gender discrimination (hidden and not very clear, but still obvious). By that time I covered gender issues after the collapse of communism, and many colleagues – of both genders – did not understand the issue.

In 1992, we (colleagues and I) established together The Association of Women Journalists, an NGO, and I worked until 2003 in Russia and abroad, preparing many publications, surveys, public discussions and conferences as well as training sessions. In 1995 I was invited by the national Nezavisimaya (Independent) newspaper to chair the gender section, which I did until 2001.

After that time, I joined the Russian Union of Journalists as a secretary (national board member) responsible for creative programs and gender issues. Now I write my own column in an independent national weekly Delovoy Vtornik (Business Tuesday).
I have published and edited 15 books on gender issues, culture and media.

What are your views on the evolution of equality issues in your working environment? What are the obstacles still in the way of equality in your profession?

It is much better in Russia now than 16 years ago. Women are in the majority in journalism in Russia, and many are media leaders and owners, but mostly in the provinces. National media ownership and management is still a male-dominated club. Stereotypes are still alive despite dozens of training sessions and discussions. But it takes time. Many media owners understand that women are better workers (they were not so sure 15 to 20 years ago), but they do not pay enough, and women are ready to work for less money than men.

Many women are regional RUJ leaders and are very effective. Stereotypes are that the main media leaders for Russia should be male, that males are better in covering battles, that women should not go to wars (as they might be killed) and should not work on investigations. But those stereotypes are not accurate: the most popular reporters from war zones are females. I think the worst stereotypes are in the field of general labour – women earn less, and their needs as women and mothers are neglected; also, there is no social protection, and it is still perceived as second-rate issue.

What, in your view, are the best ways of combating these attitudes, at the national level? And at the international level?

It is important to discuss more, to have campaigns, international and national, using national details and cultures, involving art and literature, to change public opinion. There should be more discussion in the unions, in media companies, more information should be distributed, and international meetings should be arranged and people should share experiences. We need to make an impact on the general public first and to involve as many people as we can. We have tried to arrange different events: gender media contests, fairs, Stop Sexism exhibitions in Russia and other countries, public discussions, talk shows on TV and radio, etc. We have cooperated with gender centers and other NGOs. But more should be done.

The media still gives too little and often inappropriate coverage of the issue of violence against women. How do you think the Russian media is evolving in this respect?

Violence in families is a hot issue – introduced around 15 years ago by the combined efforts of NGOs and women journalists – and is regularly reported, presented in TV serials and so on. It is covered quite often, and violence against women is also covered. Russia is full of violence, and the audience is sensitive. Many journalists of both genders cover the issue, but not enough – everyday life is not covered enough at all, and sometimes violence is presented in a scandalous way. But one can see a big difference between today’s coverage and the lack of gender awareness of some years ago. Trafficking is also presented in many national media, including broadcasting. Recently all media covered the trail of traffickers. RUJ arranges media contests on gender equality, has covered violence against women for several years, and has published a collection of the best stories from Russian newspapers on violence. We discuss the issue regularly at the Women’s Journalist Club in Moscow and in the regions.
I think that gender training is still important for correspondents covering crime and also important for media leaders.

Could you outline the stages in your trade union career?

I joined the union in 1985 as a young journalist. I have participated in some RUJ events since early 1990 when we started The Association of Women Journalists and reported about gender discrimination in the professions and in media coverage. And I was invited several times to get a job in the union because of that. I came to RUJ in 2001, after the collapse of my newspaper, and brought the Association activity to RUJ. Very soon it became one of the important parts of the agenda; there are so many women now in the field of media in Russia.
Today I am responsible for international projects and exchange, and gender is part of it.

What place do women hold in the Russian Union of Journalists? What policy do you think could help advance the position of women?

Women are 30 % of the RUJ national leadership, and they are a very active part of the regional leadership. They are well respected and effective. I think we need a strategy for gender equality in general, and a strategy for union building first of all. The problem is lack of gender awareness among the majority of union leaders and members, both male and female. The awareness should be improved.

In October 2009, the ITUC World Women’s Conference will be held under the theme " Decent work, decent life for women: Trade unions taking the lead for economic and social justice & equality". What does this theme inspire you with in your day-to-day life?

Unions should work on the issue, and decent work and life for women journalists in Russia is very important. But I don’t want to talk about women only, in Russia, where male journalists have a very short life span and very bad health, and leave the profession. Gender issues should be discussed as a whole, with the special needs of all included as part of the discussion. We need men in quality journalism as well (around 80 % of working journalists, not leaders, are women at this very moment). And we need to restore respect to the profession, to journalism first of all, and women’s needs should be our symbol here just as it was the symbol for Russian democrats in the beginning of 20th century in Russia.

As a media professional, what message would you like to convey to the women trade unionists from the various regions of the world who are to take part in this event?

I would like to call upon everybody to listen to each other, to share experiences and be open-minded. The world is really diverse, and women suffer everywhere, actually more than men, but in different ways and diverse circumstances. And women in different parts of the globe have different strategies for protecting themselves. I would like to pay attention also to culture and its role in gender equality messages, to creativity, and to real sisterhood. There is no one recipe for everybody, even if we share the same human rights and gender equality values and have ideas about ideal trade unionism (and trade unions and journalist unions are very diverse as well in the world). Life is much more complex, and it is important to keep in mind this complexity in order to achieve success and real equality and respect for everybody.

Interview by Natacha David.

(*) See the IFJ declaration “Ethics and Gender: Equality in the Newsroom”, Brussels, May 30-31st 2009. This statement was published at the end of the IFJ conference in Brussels that Nadezda Azhgikhina attended, together with some sixty journalists from around the world.

 More information on IFJ & gender issues here