• 'Wall-to-wall blokes' is still a cultural norm in commercial newsrooms, this week's Women in Media event in Melbourne was told. PIC: Mark Farnell

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Despite making strides toward gender equality, Australia’s women journalists still face a competitive and shrinking news industry rife with challenges.

“We could have been having an identical discussion to what we were having in the 80s,” Herald Sun columnist Wendy Tuohy told a networking event for women in journalism on Monday in Melbourne.

Tuohy appeared alongside ABC investigative reporter Louise Milligan and Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass on a panel moderated by Gay Alcorn, Guardian Australia’s Melbourne editor, who asked whether the gender “glass ceiling” — a term coined in 1988 — still existed.

Tuohy said that while the industry had improved in some areas — citing more flexible working arrangements and paid parental leave policies — she described the difficulty she faced returning to journalism after time away to raise her children.

“If you take time out and quit your job you won’t make the same money again,” she said.

Milligan said she did not think she faced any explicit barriers to leadership roles, and nothing that couldn’t be overcome by hard work.

“The glass ceiling is not necessarily there,” she said. “You can punch through it.”

But she did admit to experiencing subtle and not-so-subtle sexism, drawing gasps from the crowd when she recounted an event from 10 years ago, when a male colleague told her she had only been hired because of her breasts.

“I just shrank, I actually felt dizzy. I just made it my mission that I was going to prove to that person that I was a kick-arse journalist,” she said.

Tuohy said she had been called “toots” and “princess” by a male sports presenter who was appearing as a fellow panelist on a commercial TV show recently.

The panel lay much of the blame for continued gender disparities on commercial media stations.

“When it comes to management, it’s wall-to-wall blokes. ‘Bloke-orama’,” said Milligan, who now works for the ABC’s 7.30 program.

She praised the ABC for its efforts to place women in management positions.

The former Seven News reporter described her arrival at the ABC as a “revelation”.

“While there are more women than ever before working in the industry, they still dominate the lower paid, less powerful positions.” — Tracey Spicer, Women in Media

Tuohy said she rarely sees commercial media putting women in positions of power.

The event unfolded just days ahead of Hillary Clinton’s fight to break the highest glass ceiling in world politics. But the public discourse over the “likeability” of an ambitious woman resonated with the panelists.

“Blokes get away with so much,” Milligan said. “They get away with quite inappropriate behaviour at times. If women act in that way it’s frowned upon.”

All three panelists, as well as Alcorn, encouraged younger journalists to seek out relationships with other women in the industry.

“Be shameless,” said Tuohy.

Deborah Glass, Victoria’s first female ombudsman, said she often saw women colleagues undervalue their skills when considering job opportunities.

“A man will look at one item [on a skills list] and say, ‘I can do that’ and go for it, while women will say ‘I can’t do all 10’.”

The event was hosted by the Victorian arm of Women in Media, a networking and mentoring group backed by the nation’s journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Women in Media formed in 2013 as part of an effort to nurture women in an industry where men are more likely to hold management roles.

“When it comes to management, it’s wall-to-wall blokes. ‘Bloke-orama’.”Louise Milligan, on commercial newsrooms

Though there are plenty of women working as journalists, the reportedly “blokey” nature of traditionally male-led newsrooms has made it more difficult for women to advance their careers.

A Women in Media survey of women journalists released last June found that nearly half of respondents had experienced intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment at work. One-third of those surveyed said they would not have felt confident speaking up about discrimination.

One in two mothers surveyed said they experienced discrimination after having a baby.

Most women also said they believed the gender pay gap existed, an attitude reinforced by 2015 figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which found that women journalists make 23.3 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Tracey Spicer, the organisation’s national convener, said at the time that the survey highlighted the “disappointingly slow” movement for gender equality in journalism.

“While there are more women than ever before working in the industry, they still dominate the lower paid, less powerful positions,” she said.

“The media is often called a mirror of society. But it is failing to reflect our diversity.”

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