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Discop Africa: Former NBC Exec Paula Madison and Others Talk Opportunities for African Women in Media

JOHANNESBURG — The success stories, the challenges and the opportunities for women working in media were the focus of a lively panel discussion which opened the Discop Africa TV content market in Johannesburg on Nov. 2.

Moderating the session, former CNN anchor and CEO of Akoma Media, Zain Verjee, introduced her colleagues as women “who have broken glass ceilings.”

“With a few cuts and bruises—but they’ve all done it,” she said.

The panel included Khanyi Magubane, managing director of Zinokwanda Media & Communications; Sara Blecher, co-founder of Cinga Productions and founding member of the South African Women in Film and Television (SWIFT); Paula Madison, co-owner and consultant for The Africa Channel (pictured, left); and Bongiwe Selane, vice-chairperson of South Africa’s Independent Producers Organization, and creative producer of Blingola Media (pictured, right).

Over the course of the 90-minute talk, the panelists shared stories of the struggles they’ve faced throughout their careers in an industry largely dominated by male decision-makers, offering candid anecdotes about workplace harassment while also sharing career advice with an audience largely made up of young women.

“[Getting started] had everything to do with recognizing that what I could not do was go into the room feeling afraid,” said Madison. “What I could not do was go into the room…thinking that I needed to hold my tongue.”

During her time working at NBC, Madison rose to become the highest-ranking African-American in broadcast news. In Johannesburg, she told the audience she was encouraged by the prospects for many of those embarking on media careers across the continent.

“There are probably more women in decision-making positions in Africa” than in the U.S., she said, while drawing a comparison to the start of her own career, when “there weren’t many opportunities for the women who had preceded me to pull me along.”

Progressive legislation has begun to open doors in South Africa, where women today hold more than 40% of the senior posts in government. Selane pointed to “progress in women taking decision-making places in the film and television space,” including at the helm of the country’s National Film & Video Foundation.

Blecher also described the efforts of SWIFT to work as a lobbying group, pushing lawmakers to adopt measures that will aid women struggling to gain equal footing in the industry.

The hope shared by the panelists was that the effect would be felt by producers, enabling them to create more content that reflects women’s voices. “We’re 52 percent of the population,” said Blecher. “Surely we want to hear our own stories. And we want to tell our own stories.”

As head of The Africa Channel, Madison stressed how women in ownership can drive the narratives that take shape on TV screens.

“Much of the content that I see in primetime…is the perpetuation of women as competitors,” she said. “When an owner has an expectation or a fantasy about how women interact with each other, those are the scripts that get selected, those are the productions that get funded, those are the people who get hired, those are the programs that get [broadcast].”

“That’s the narrative that’s being forced upon us by a particular group of people who have a mindset that this is what women do,” she added.

Still, as a TV exec, Madison was just as quick to point to the practical need to reach out to women viewers. “I don’t take that in any way as pandering to a female audience,” she said, noting how women in African households frequently control the family finances. “That’s just good business.”

Selane echoed the concerns of many in the audience when she talked about the added pressures facing women in the workplace. “There’s a lot more that we have to deal with, being mothers, being sisters, being wives,” she said. “And we can’t move away from those things. They’re part of who we are.”

Those common challenges underscore the need within the industry to have more women “supporting and helping other women,” according to Blecher.

“The mountain that we have to climb in this industry is big,” she said. “And we’re not going to do it alone.”

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