Theme Media New

Written by Diane Charleson, Australian Catholic University

New Media Definitions and Background

The term, 'New Media', originated in the 1990s as a response to the emergence of new forms of media communication and production that did not fit comfortably within the existing traditional media paradigm. Traditional media forms were largely based on print, radio, television and film and functioned on a one-to-many model. New Media was brought into being by a combination of technological, economic and social changes, such as the development of the World Wide Web, the growing affordability of personal computers with high-speed micro-processing units and modems, and the rapid development of 'dot.coms'. Thus New Media emerged from the possibilities presented by new technologies, largely computer-based, which enabled new means and forms of communication and production.

New Media enables or facilitates user-to-user interactivity as well as interactivity between user and information. It includes any and all of the following: online news, streaming video and streaming audio, 3-D and virtual reality environments and effects, highly interactive user interfaces, mobile presentation and computing capabilities, CD and DVD media, telephone and digital data integration, online communities and live internet broadcasting. This supplements, and in many cases replaces, the-one-to-many model of traditional mass communication with a many-to-many web of communication. Those who first entered the new world of New Media came mainly from more traditional media occupations. They included journalists, filmmakers, writers, educators, publishers, artists, musicians and distributors, to name a few. They saw the potential afforded by New Media to change and expand their means and approach to media production and communication. Thus New Media personnel were as diverse as the new world they entered.

In common with this diversity of backgrounds, and also in response to the speed and rapid development of new technologies, career pathways into New Media were also diverse, lacking clear structural models. It was very much a pioneering time, a time of excitement, passion, possibility, novelty and vision. Women came to New Media for many different reasons in the later part of the 20th century but they came mainly from traditional media as education and career pathways in IT and technology were fledgling at best. Women who did move at this time placed themselves in the box seat for later leadership and innovation. They could be categorised as visionaries, risk takers, adaptable, pioneering, creative and experimental but the distinctive characteristic of most of these women was their passion for communication.

Pathways to Leadership

For this entry, I interviewed several key women who have emerged as leaders in New Media in Australia in the 20th Century. They represent women from education, print publication, journalism, film and the internet. The most interesting thing that emerged from those I interviewed was that, like so many women leaders in all fields, they believe they came into their leadership roles by default. Dale Spender started to become involved with New Media in 1985 and, even at this early stage, she realised its potential, particularly the effect it would have on the printed book and its place in education. She recognised very early on that many people felt threatened by this change and therefore she should not antagonise them. She was, 'challenging the way people viewed the world. This makes people insecure'. Consequently, she needed to develop a leadership style that navigated these obstacles in order to be successful in her mission to educate academics about the transition from print to digital. Margaret Simons confirms that attaining a leadership role has not been easy. She started as a cadet journalist and then went on to write for the Age newspaper. Although she worked very hard, it was always difficult for women to become editors of a major newspaper. Later she moved away from journalism and worked in fiction novel writing where she was 'well able to look after herself' and did not have a one-dimensional life. She became involved with New Media through her writing on line for and has also written three books on journalism and media. She does not see herself as leader in a traditional sense, as most of her work has been freelance. She defines her style of leadership in terms of the influence she has on those who have chosen to follow her work. Sandra Davey, on the other hand, had a different progression to a leadership role. She left public school at 17 having failed year 12 and without a university ENTER score but later went on to gain a bachelor of social science degree at the age of 23. She considers her career to be a mixture of absolute luck, enthusiasm and being in the right place at the right time. She came to see the potential of the internet for 'changing the world', particularly in the area of social justice. She decided that this was something she wanted to be part of. Her training was mostly on the job and self-learning rather than through more traditional leadership pathways offered in larger organisations. What these women have in common then, despite their diversity of background and progression, was passion, dedication and a love for their chosen career combined with a desire to communicate.

Characteristics of a Leader

Most women did not enter New Media with leadership as a goal and they are also reluctant now to identify themselves as leaders in any conventional sense. However, when asked to reflect, they can describe their leadership philosophy and style. Here, many common threads emerge. Mostly they describe their style as participatory and collaborative, leading by being passionate and open. This approach is characterised by a strong emphasis on mentoring and guiding their staff. They agree that this is a key feature and allied to this and of equal importance is empowering staff by supplying clear outcomes and an articulated vision. Moreover, they agree that a leader needs to be enthusiastic and charismatic but at the same time clear and critical when necessary. Davey also stresses the importance of an open door policy with staff and the need for dialogue and planning. Leaders need to create a team of smart people from diverse backgrounds. This encourages creativity, innovation and lateral thinking, which are all key ingredients for success in the New Media field. Sonja Bernhardt defines women leaders as those who motivate and energise others- 'Women who are decisive and comfortable with themselves, not afraid to have an opinion, speak up, make decisions, and take control - a transformationist' who 'can harness the energy of others to assist with transformation'. She also suggests that there are female leaders in New Media whom she describes as 'male clones'- that is, women who as leaders copy the male style in an attempt to prove their worthiness for the role and, by so doing, often make unjust harsher judgements on female colleagues, so as to not be perceived as weak or biased.

New Media and the Gender Divide

The media industry has traditionally been male dominated and leadership in New Media is little different. Women and men generally have very different experiences of work in New Media. Research shows that differences and inequalities persist for women, even when they have levels of skills equivalent to their male contemporaries. Studies have shown that women won significantly fewer work contracts, and those which they did gain were often for public sector voluntary, rather than with commercial, organisations (Perrons, 65-93). Women often earn less money for their New Media work than men as a result of working on fewer projects. The consequence is that many women became de facto part-time workers in their chosen field, and this has had a huge impact on leadership opportunities.

Spender is adamant that New Media is definitely male dominated and has devoted her life to subverting this. She believes that women leaders tend to be sharers rather than hoarders but warns that generalisations across a gender divide are hard to make. Simons believes that New Media has traditionally been more geeky, nerdy and male dominated but that this is rapidly changing with the rise in the use of social media and online magazines. Such platforms have meant that the barriers to entry into New Media publishing have been opened and are much more accessible, thus enabling women's voices to emerge more readily than in traditional media. She believes that New Media allows for attributes that are coded female, such as women's ability to be adaptable and embrace different writing styles in an online environment that demands immediacy with audiences. Creativity and communication, essential in New Media leadership, are generally also coded female. Since much of what is needed in leadership in New Media is thus coded female, one would expect this to be reflected with more female leaders. But women are still struggling to break through. One reason for the continuing male dominance of New Media leadership, Simons points out, is that many online environments, such as, tend to have predominantly male audiences and this largely determines content. However, she does see leadership change occurring in New Media in the 21st century, evidenced by women leaders such as Sophie Blake, Amanda Dome and Annette Barlow taking up senior positions in companies such as Google. Davey believes that there is a growing shift in the media industry to the importance of EQ (Emotional Quotient) indicators, which favour women, over IQ (Intelligence Quotient) measures, which favour men.

Women in New Media and Feminism

All of these women define themselves as feminists. Some are working in New Media as advocates for women, while others are more focused on their specific field of work but still have strong feminist views. Simons identifies herself as a feminist but says it was her passion and driving force to find out about things, as well as writing for a living, that drove her in her career, rather than a feminist agenda as such. She was influenced by feminist writers such as Germaine Greer and Dale Spender and defined herself as a feminist but 'I haven't done what I've done because I'm a feminist. I've done what I've done because I wanted to do it'. Davey also calls herself a feminist and strongly believes that women should achieve everything they can. Dale Spender, on the other hand, has spent her entire career championing the feminist cause and all of her work in New Media has been devoted to empowering women.

All these women stress the importance of female peer support groups in their careers to support each other, share ideas, contribute to work and provide networking. Davey attributes a great deal of her inspiration to the significant female role models in her first job. They were dynamic and supportive and were a major change agent in her life and career choices. Simons admits to having had many people that she admired and watched but does not attribute her success to any one particular role model. They all agree that they did not have one main mentor watching over them and helping them along. As well as stressing the importance of female support groups, they talk of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and a burning passion for their work as the main ingredients of their success. Bernhardt sees a shift in the importance of female support groups in the 21st Century. She believes that, although they were useful historically, they are less so today:

I feel the tech savvy generation has a broad base for support groups that are not gender based. There are people today that operate from female groups but cringe at being labelled a feminist and this is resulting in a move away from gender-specific engagement.

The Impact of Work-Life Balance

Much has been written about the difficulty of managing the work-life balance in demanding work roles (Gill, 2002), particularly for women in relation to the impact on their leadership opportunities. Davey insists that she does not like the idea of 'giving up' anything, preferring to see herself as making active choices. She has always worked very hard, which she believes is part of the unspoken return for higher salaries and management positions. Although she has chosen not to have children, she does not see this as a sacrifice but a purely personal decision. She encounters many women who manage both family and leadership positions well. Bernhard also does not like the term, work-life balance, as:

that indicates if one is up, the other is down. I call it PORTFOLIO-it is a portfolio of my life and all the things I do contribute to me as a whole person-so if I am spending more time with family that adds value (and lessons) to me as a person that enhances me and the way I operate in other parts of my portfolio, and vice versa. It's about the whole picture of me as a person and not opposite sides of my life.

She goes on to say that:

sadly I have observed that in the corporate world females in leadership roles tend to the opposite direction-trying to triple prove they can stay the hours and be visible and therefore denying their need for a different work style. I'm for the opposite trying to "poke" the world into realising that productivity and value are not distinctly linked to "hours seen in an office", they relate to the whole person and their entire contributions.

Simons says that work-life balance varied at different times in her career. When she was young, she worked hard and played hard. She went on to have children and worked freelance. This ball-juggling altered as the children grew up. Family is very important to her and she loves the flexibility of location that New Media allows, but she does concede that working from home can both help and hinder such a balance. Gill (2002) argues that the notion of 'flexible hours' suggests that the individual is able to exercise some control over when and how long they work; however, the needs of the current project are nearly always paramount, and 'flexibility' is determined by these, rather than by the needs of the worker. Many projects have extremely tight deadlines and these have necessitated intense round-the-clock working. She argues that, if longer working hours are generalised, then time or the willingness to work long hours will form a new means of gender differentiation. Similarly problematic is the capacity to choose a workspace, represented as an indicator of flexible working practices, with working from home constructed as emblematic of freedom for professional workers- particularly women. However, Gill has found that not all women want to work from home, preferring a divide between home and work. Working from home, is rarely a choice for women and it has a downside in that it does not facilitate networking.

Barriers to Women's Leadership

The rapid development of New Media has lead to high job turn over, with women staying only a few years in any one job without a thoughtful plan for developing leadership qualities or aspirations. Davey admits to having never applied for jobs, relying instead on networking, and having no real strategic plan when it came to her career. In her study of working patterns in New Media, Gill (2002) stresses the extent of freelance work where workers often only come together with other freelancers in 'project networks' for particular outputs. These collaborations are described as teamwork without organisational hierarchy, where tasks are more important than roles, but they also have the effect of discouraging planned leadership pathways in the industry. Davey agrees with this judgement and adds that, in larger organisations, women tend to get stuck at middle-management positions where the work is hardest and where women have less support. She sees that some of the barriers facing women's leadership in New Media are connected with the recruitment process and mentality of management in Australia. There is a difference between Australian attitudes to recruitment compared with practices in international companies: 'Australian male leaders tend to recruit people similar to themselves and this needs to be broken. They tend to recruit the same white males, ending up with a workforce of males entirely like the manager'. This trend she believes can be broken through self-awareness, adopting a more global perspective and by managers acquiring overseas experience. She also suggests that there is too much emphasis in Australian businesses on short-term goals linked to KPIs of two years duration.

Increasingly, however, New Media presents new models of organisation that alter the dynamics of attaining leadership and will perhaps redefine what we mean by a leader. New organisational forms have been termed heterarchical (Girard & Stark, 153-92) Heterarchies are characterised by minimal hierarchy and by organisational heterogeneity, not only because they have a flattened hierarchy but also because they are the sites of competing and co-existing value systems. The greater interdependence of increasingly autonomous work teams results in a proliferation of performance criteria. Distributed authority not only implies that units will be accountable to each other but also that each will be held to accountings in multiple registers. However, Gill suggests that there are inherent problems in the informality of such organisations that may be detrimental to the development of women leaders in New Media. Informality can cause problems, such the absence of clear criteria for evaluating work; access to new contracts is also often controlled informally, and on the basis of interpersonal connections determined by 'who you know, not what you know', and this has been perceived by some women as a form of gendered exclusion.


Women in New Media in the 20th century faced many challenges in reaching leadership positions but have also been presented with many new opportunities and redefinitions. They faced the difficulties and challenges inherent in entering an untraversed arena that inherited much in terms of male domination in leadership roles from traditional media models. The 21st century has seen and will see greater growth in New Media where the shape and nature of the work, organisation and leadership opportunities for women are still unfolding There are many barriers to leadership to overcome; yet, as much of the work in this field can be seen as coded female, we can look forward positively to a redefined future.

Additional sources: Gill, R., 'British Women on the Web', Paper presented to the Women on the Web Conference, Hamburg, 8 March 2001. Interview with Dale Spender by Diane Charleson, 6 February 2012. Interview with Sandra Davey by Diane Charleson, 6 February 2012. Interview with Margaret Simons by Diane Charleson, 6 February 2012. Interview with Sonja Bernhardt by Diane Charleson, 2012.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I. & Kelly, K., New Media: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London, England, 2003. Details
  • North, Louise, The Gendered Newsroom: How Journalists Experience the Changing World of Media, Hampton Press, Cresskill, New Jersey, United States of America, 2009. Details
  • Wajcman, J., Feminism Confronts Technology, Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 1991. Details
  • Webster, J., Shaping Women's Work: Gender, Employment and Information Technology, Longman, Harlow, United Kingdom, 1996. Details

Book Sections

  • Manovich, Lev, 'New Media from Borges to HTML', in Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Nick Montfort (ed.), The New Media Reader, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press, Cambridge, England, 2003, pp. 13-25. Details

Conference Papers

  • Gill, R., 'British Women on the Web', in Women on the Web Conference, Hamburg, 8 March 2001, 2001. Details

Edited Books

  • Grint, K. and Gill, R. (eds), The Gender-Technology Relation: Contemporary Theory and Research, Taylor & Francis, London, England, 1995. Details
  • Henwood, F., Kenney, H. & Miller, N. (ed.), Cyborg Lives? Women's Technobiographies, Raw Nerve Press, London, England, 2001. Details

Journal Articles

  • Gill, R., 'Cool, Creative and Egalitarian? Exploring Gender in Project-based New Media Work', Euro, Information, Communication & Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2002, pp. 70-89. Details
  • Girard, M. & Stark, D., 'Distributing Intelligence and Organizing Diversity in New Media Projects', Sociedade e Estado, vol. 17, no. 1, 2002, pp. 153-92. Details
  • Henwood, F., 'WISE Choices? Understanding Occupational Decision-making in a Climate of Equal Opportunities for Women in Science and Technology', Gender and Education, vol. 8, no. 2, 1996, pp. 199-214. Details
  • Perrons, D., 'The New Economy and the Work-Life Balance: Conceptual Explorations and a Case Study of New Media', Gender, Work & Organization, vol. 10, no. 1, 2003, pp. 65-93. Details

Online Resources