I think I deserved every job or promotion and I think I’ve performed well in each job. But I know that I got more breaks and opportunities than deserving female colleagues. And male colleagues with less achievement and potential also got more breaks.
Nieman Reports has published a strong and detailed examination of gender issues in journalism. I encourage you to read it for a more thorough look at the issues and obstacles than you’ll find here. This is just a personal perspective, prompted by the Nieman report: Gender has been a significant – sometimes huge – obstacle for female journalists throughout my journalism career. While it has improved over the long haul, it hasn’t been steady improvement and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said women have lost ground lately.
I’ve worked with a lot of male journalists who rose to upper-level management positions, or even to the top, who weren’t as talented or as accomplished as females who left the business in frustration or never made it to the upper levels.
For this post, I’m not going to name names or news organizations. I don’t want to offend or argue with former male colleagues I think have based decisions in large or tiny part on gender, intentionally or without thinking. I don’t want to embarrass any women by discussing their career disappointments or other matters. And I certainly won’t violate the things female colleagues have told me in confidence.
But here are some observations about gender in the newsrooms where I’ve worked, either as a full-time journalist or visiting as a trainer or corporate editor:
I remember a newsroom org chart that named more than 20 managers and only one was a woman – the librarian.
I have sat in hundreds – perhaps thousands – newsroom planning meetings where men outnumbered women by 3-to-1 or more. I remember two sets of regular high-level meetings where the gender ratio was 12-2 and 13-3. Except for a few tiny newsrooms I visited, I can’t remember a high-level meeting where women outnumbered men.
In one operation where I worked, the top six people included two outstanding women – not parity, but an improvement on those numbers cited above. Both of those women were run off by top corporate management in less than a year. One male manager left in that time frame.
I’ve been hired, promoted or interviewed for jobs about 50 times. Women led the hiring process only four times. I remember another eight times when women were involved in the interviews.
I’ve visited more than 100 newsrooms and the top editors of more than 70 percent of them were men.
In any newsroom where I worked that women addressed gender issues in ways that I was aware of, male leaders invariably denied that gender was a cause for the disparity. They usually cited the same excuses – difficulties finding qualified or experienced women when they had management openings, childbirth, losing women from leadership positions for family reasons, yada yada. They usually pledged to work for better gender diversity and made little progress.
I have heard – in the hiring process – comments from editors about the appearance of female job candidates, both disparaging comments about someone’s size and crude comments purportedly in appreciation of attractive women. These instances were rare, but they happened.
On occasions where I’ve had responsibility for staff salaries, I’ve inherited some numbers I found difficult to defend – never a woman overpaid compared to men doing similar work, but many times women not making nearly as much as comparable male staffers. I wish I could say I was successful in correcting all those situations, and I’m glad I never had to justify those numbers in court. In one case, I realized I was responsible for a pay gap. I paid what it took to hire staffers, an amount related to their previous salaries. So pay disparity in former newsrooms resulted in my hiring two people to similar jobs at significantly different pay. After I realized the situation, I did succeed in narrowing much of that gap.
Women have plenty of interest in working in journalism. Nieman Reports noted that women outnumber men in graduating from communication schools. My experience agrees: The graduate journalism class I taught this spring at Georgetown had 11 women and no men. The sophomore-level Introduction to Mass Media course I’m teaching this fall at Louisiana State University has 22 women and eight men.
Something happens, though, as female students enter journalism and try to climb newsroom ladders. And it’s not just childbirth and child-rearing. I’ve witnessed blatant sexual discrimination and sexual harassment against promising women without children (who left the business). I’ve seen 30-ish childless newlyweds and 40-ish unmarried women leave journalism frustrated at their lack of opportunities and/or at being passed over for less-capable male colleagues.
Men trying to justify our dominance in newsrooms can downplay the significance of gender in specific cases, whether it’s a high-profile incident such as Jill Abramson’s firing or the low-profile gender imbalance of their own newsroom. But you simply can’t explain the outlandish disparity in newsroom leadership roles throughout journalism as anything but widespread historic gender discrimination and insufficient effort to remove obstacles and provide opportunities.
You can’t entirely dismiss the significance of cultural issues that contribute to the imbalance. Women do generally play a bigger role in child-rearing than men (Mimi stayed at home with our children several years while I charged forward in my career). Lots of couples (a majority, I suspect) are more likely to be willing to relocate for the man’s job than the woman’s, though I wonder how much that’s because of the disparity in pay. (Again, all of our moves were for my jobs, not Mimi’s, though when her Creighton University job included free tuition for our sons, that was a motivation in me moving back after two years commuting weekly between work in Des Moines and home in Omaha.) For cultural reasons, women may be less aggressive in pursuing opportunities or pay raises (some women editors made those observations in the Nieman Report).
Those factors might explain a 60/40 or 55/45 imbalance at the upper levels of newsrooms, but not the huge disparities that Nieman Reports documents and that I’ve observed throughout my career. Anyone who thinks gender isn’t a huge obstacle to success in journalism management is probably in deep denial.
Gender issues don’t always work in one direction. Efforts to address this imbalance have led to some clumsy and unfair, if well-meaning, reverse discrimination. I remember a news executive of one company saying I’d be unlikely to get a shot at managing editor in a particular newsroom where the editor was a white male because that company rarely placed white males in both top newsroom jobs. I don’t know of any women who advocate denying opportunities to men, only ensuring opportunities for women. Another job I sought went to a woman, when I was more qualified and I’m certain I would have done a better job. All similar positions in that newsroom were filled by men, so maybe I was hurt by an effort to change a history of gender discrimination (or maybe I had an exaggerated view of how much better a candidate I was).
But I’m sure most women who’ve worked as long as I have can think of more than two instances where gender was an obstacle for them. I’m certain that plenty of women who would have been good candidates got little or no consideration for the jobs that advanced my career. Network connections have been critical to several of my career moves, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said men tend to have stronger professional networks.
Looking at my career moves in total, the advantage of being male is undeniable.
I don’t pretend to have solutions, but I feel I should do more here than just describe the problem. It doesn’t feel right for a man to offer women advice here on how to succeed in a man’s world. So instead I’ll offer men and news organizations some thoughts on how to do a better job of providing opportunities and achieving gender diversity:
Don’t make this just an issue of doing what’s right. Fairness and diversity are the right things to pursue, but news organizations don’t always do the right thing, and I don’t think it’s a likely to be a successful strategy to try to convince your company that it hasn’t been doing the right thing. I think the best (and most convincing) reason to pursue gender diversity is that newspapers (the medium I’m most familiar with) haven’t been as successful at attracting women as readers as we have with men. Whatever media you work in, it just makes sense that if you have more women in decision-making positions you’re going to do a better job of producing content that women will value. And women spend a hell of a lot of money. If media leaders recognized gender diversity as the economic imperative that I believe it is, we’d figure out how to achieve it.
Cultivate and mentor strong female prospects. Whether you have a formal mentoring or leadership program in your organization or just an unwritten list of prospects for management positions, you do have a way of cultivating future leaders. Make certain that women are strongly included in this pipeline. This should not be a program just for women or minorities, but you may need to make a conscious effort to diversify the prospects being mentored. The natural tendency to gravitate toward people like ourselves results in mentoring and helpful relationships for white males. It’s not tokenism or reverse discrimination to consciously provide these relationships to other prospects as well; you’re just being sure to offset the unfairness of your natural tendencies.
Don’t tolerate inappropriate comments. My biggest regret regarding sexual discrimination is that I did not often enough speak up when supervisors or peers made sexist jokes or remarks. You can rationalize those comments as harmless when they’re made just among the guys. But they’re not. I was shocked once to learn that some of these guys were saying the same things in the presence of female colleagues. You can’t overstate how damaging this is, and the hostile environment it creates is a potentially damaging legal issue. And, of course, the fact that we had so many conversations just among the guys was a symptom of our dominance.
Speaking of which, don’t exclude. The prevalence of sports talk, office fantasy leagues and sports-event outings in newsroom culture often results in male-only conversations or socializing that does not escape the notice of the women who are excluded. I’m not saying to ban sports socializing from the newsroom, but to make an effort to invite women who are interested in sports. Though men may have stronger interest in sports, it’s not an exclusively male interest. Your newsroom has women who want to join a group going to a game or who want to join a fantasy league or your weekly pick-up basketball games (and might kick your ass). If a sports culture is strong in your newsroom, make sure that it’s not gender-exclusive. (Again, this is an area where I have been personally guilty, though I think I’ve been more inclusive than exclusive, playing co-ed softball and basketball games and bantering and trash-talking about sports with women as well as men.)
Make time for family. The all-consuming life that newsrooms sometimes expect or even require has never been good for the men who dominate in so many newsrooms. It hasn’t been good for our health or our families and sometimes it violates federal labor laws. Women with leadership potential may have chosen not to pursue management opportunities, because they had either better sense than their male colleagues or more family responsibilities. If we allow and insist on reasonable working hours, women with family responsibilities will be more likely to aspire to executive jobs and work in the jobs on the lower rungs of the newsroom ladder.
Unbolt from print work schedules. Speaking of family, the heavy evening work schedules of morning newspapers and television newsrooms are lousy hours for parents, a situation that’s more acceptable for fathers than for mothers in many families. But digital journalism requires more workers starting early hours (ideal for a parent wanting to be home after school) or 9-to-5 shifts (great for being home for dinner or for driving teens to evening activities). An unbolted newsroom is going to have fewer evening shifts and more day shifts, potentially providing more opportunities that will be attractive to women.
Value diversity of experience. I have known male colleagues who entered journalism as a second career: former pastors, lawyers, public-relations or advertising professionals, even a former country music singer. I have known fewer second-career female journalists (I can think of a former teacher who’s excelling in journalism, but I’m not recalling another). Journalism is going to lose people to other careers, perhaps more women than men, because of the career pause some take when children are young. We need to be as welcoming of the experience women bring from other careers as we are of men’s non-journalism experience.
Don’t overvalue experience. If your system has favored men over women and you could suddenly start being completely fair, you’d probably base this fairness on something like awarding jobs and promotions solely to the people with the most appropriate experience for a position. And men would still have a huge advantage because you’ve been giving them more valuable experience. But the fact is that promising men have always been evaluated based on a combination of experience and potential and many of us got opportunities based more on potential experience. Promising women deserve to be considered similarly. I remember trying to persuade two editors to promote a promising female journalist to a supervising position. They agreed that she was promising but they worried that she was too young to supervise experienced staff members (probably 26-28, as I recall, but she might have looked younger). I asked my colleagues how old they were when they became supervising editors. They and I were about 24 when someone gave us a chance. She got that job. But I remember other instances when concerns about experience dominated decisions about promising female job candidates.
Be flexible in working arrangements. Allow telecommuting either full-time or part-time where work doesn’t really have to be performed in the newsroom. Consider job-sharing or part-time jobs that might be attractive to mothers (or fathers) of young children.
Examine pay equity in your newsroom. If men are paid better in your newsroom, you’re creating obstacles and causing resentment, not to mention creating the potential for a lawsuit. Identify women who are underpaid compared to men and work to correct those disparities, whatever it takes.
Do the extra work to find strong female candidates. I was involved once in making a leadership hire for a position where my company needed more gender diversity. No female internal candidates applied. Determined to find female candidates to consider, I reached out to several women I knew in other parts of the company and elsewhere in the news business. At one point, I consulted with a couple female colleagues, detailing my efforts and asking if they could recommend either specific candidates or measures I might take to find candidates. They were satisfied with my efforts and said we needed to get the best candidate regardless of gender. I agreed and appreciated their support, but I persisted and found two strong candidates to interview, one of them referred by one of the colleagues I had consulted with. One of the two became a finalist who interviewed strongly. The person making the final call ended up hiring a more experienced man (and cited experience as a deciding factor), which was a frustrating result. But that insistence on finding qualified candidates helped us find strong candidates in other searches were we did end up hiring outstanding women for other leadership jobs.
Don’t indulge in tokenism. Don’t diminish a woman’s value by viewing a position, before or after hiring, as one where you strictly need to hire a woman. The fact that men hold so many management and senior positions ensures that newsrooms have hired and promoted larger percentages of their best men than they have of women. Your efforts to ensure diversity should not be an attempt to hire women regardless of their qualifications. Your efforts should be an attempt to offset the societal and institutional advantages for men and find outstanding women who will do the job well. If you insult a woman by saying (even just among the guys) that she got a job because she was a woman, you’re not only lying, you’re undercutting her chances of success. Even if that’s occasionally true, it’s certainly more often true that women had to wait longer than men for their opportunity. Just don’t go there. You defend your male hires as based on merit. Give the women you hire and promote the same respect.
Stop making excuses. When big news breaks or when powerful people want to keep us from getting a story, journalists don’t make excuses. We get the story. The obstacles don’t matter and if we didn’t get the story, the excuses wouldn’t matter. We do what we need to do. We should take the same approach to achieving diversity.
I’m sure there are more things that editors and other media executives should be doing to overcome this longstanding and shameful gender disparity. What are your suggestions?
Final note: This is already too long, but I think I should address the gender diversity in my own hiring record. I can recall playing a significant role in filling 50 positions during my professional career (that seems too round a number to be accurate; no guarantee that I’m remembering them all). I was surprised to see that they split by gender exactly 25 each way. For management positions, I was involved in hiring or promoting 11 men and 10 women. I’ve mentioned some ways where I have perhaps been part of the problem or at least tolerated its symptoms. But I do think and hope that my hiring has been fair.
This post isn’t about racial and ethnic diversity, but I’ve blogged before about the importance of all kinds of diversity. I was curious about racial and ethnic diversity in my hiring, too, so I counted and I’ll mention it: Nine of my 50 hires or promotions, including two managers, have been African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American. I’d say I’ve done a better job increasing gender diversity in my newsrooms than in racial and ethnic diversity, but I think I’ve contributed to improving all kinds of diversity in my newsrooms.