Ensuring a place for women

Last week’s post on the shortage of women in investigative reporting set off an animated online conversation, including a lively #sheparty Twitter chat organized a few days ago by the Women’s Media Center. On Twitter and blog posts, a number of women journalists pointed out the difficulties they face on the job, including the skepticism or protective instincts of editors who doubt their ability to tough it out. As Lyra Mckee recounted, a woman she was writing about, herself a feminist, wondered whether she had the what it took to go out drinking in bars to talk to sources. Others cited harassment or sexist remarks from male sources and male-dominated newsrooms where women find it difficult to speak out and be heard.

To be fair, while the world of investigative reporting is largely male, so are the media more broadly. The media also reflect the imbalance in the world outside the newsroom. Corporate boardrooms are even more skewed in favor of men – just 14% of executive positions in US companies are held by women. The academy is a bit better but it’s not a paradise of gender equality either. In 2005-06, women accounted for about 40% of fulll-time faculty in US universities, but only 25% of full professorships, according to a study by the National Educational Association.

Though more women than men now graduate from college, there are disproportionately fewer of them in the upper reaches of the professions, whether it’s law, medicine, engineering, business or government. What Esther Kaplan, editor of The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, wrote this week  –  “investigative reporting has somehow become a field like cooking, where many of the cooks are women, yet the top chefs are almost always men”  – is true of other endeavors as well.

There are historical, cultural and social structural reasons for such disparities. But the more interesting reasons have to do with the limits women have put on themselves and the self-perception that they are not as enterprising, as tough or as persistent as men. This is what Esther Kaplan said in her blog post: 

When I first joined The Investigative Fund more than five years ago, almost every single one of our unsolicited queries came from men. Even very young men, straight out of college, had the chutzpah to propose ambitious investigative projects — never mind that they sometimes didn’t have any idea how to develop an actual reporting plan. Women, it seemed, didn’t have the same faith that they might be trusted to take on expensive, time-consuming reporting. It’s still not unusual for me to hear, when I reach out to a talented woman reporter with a potential assignment, “But I’m not really an investigative reporter.”

And here’s what Lyra McKee, an investigative journalist in Northern Ireland, wrote:

We aren’t entirely blameless in this debate. We don’t have enough female reporters considering investigative journalism as a career option in the first place. The traits associated with being an investigative reporter – aggression, pushiness, persistence – are seen as “male”. Consequently, like the science and tech industries, investigative reporting is not on the radar of female journalism trainees.

Are women journalists jettisoning their own careers by opting out of more challenging reporting? And if so, what can be done to challenge their perceptions of themselves and their abilities?

The truth is that when I went into journalism in the Philippines in the 1980s, the bravest journalists were women. Many of the male journalists at that time had sold their souls to Marcos and spent the evenings after work drowning their torments at the bar of the press club. They were hardly role models. The women, on the other hand, were irreverent and feisty. They played a cat-and-mouse game with the censors. Because they were not in charge of the front pages, they were not as closely watched or perhaps not taken as seriously, so they managed to evade the restrictions in the op-ed pages or in feature sections of newspapers or magazines they edited. Some of them eventually set up their own publications, taking over the front pages themselves. They were creative, funny, and to me, utterly glamorous. They were collegial as well, encouraging the ambitions and nurturing the reportorial talents of other women who were then joining the ranks of the profession. Without those women, our newsrooms would have been so dull, so conventional, so mediocre.

Mentors and role models are therefore important. So are newsrooms where women are not marginalized, where there are enough of them to make a difference, and leaders among them who recognize that women’s voices must be heard. More women’s work must be taught in journalism schools to inspire the next generation of women reporters. Today The New York Times ran a story about how many poor but high-achieving students do not enroll in top colleges. One reason for this, the story said, is these students had never met someone who attended a top university. They didn’t have role models.

As Kaplan and KcKee have pointed out, it’s not like there’s a shortage of good muckraking work by women. Ida Tarbell pioneered paper-trail reporting more than 100 years ago; Nelly Bly brought undercover reporting to new heights. Rachel Carson inspired an environmental movement when she exposed the chemical industry in Silent Spring. Jessica Mitford uncovered the greed of the funeral industry. Toni Stabile, the patron of my own center at the Journalism School, exposed how unregulated cosmetics were harming women; her reporting helped prompt legislation requiring the disclosure of ingredients in personal-care products. The list goes on and on. (Lyra McKee has compiled a list of women investigative reporters and their Twitter handles.) Yet despite this, the face of investigative reporting is male. It’s Seymour Hersh or Woodward and Bernstein.

If we want more women investigative reporters, women’s work – and women muckrakers – must be made more visible. There should be more efforts to recruit and mentor emerging women journalists in newsrooms.The independent funds that support investigative reporting should have more outreach to women, as should investigative reporting associations and the many conferences and training programs on investigative reporting that are being organized all over the world. In addition, the investigative nonprofits that are innovating for the future should take steps to ensure that future has a secure place for women.

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One Comment on “Ensuring a place for women”

  1. […] “Many of the male journalists at that time had sold their souls to Marcos and spent the evenings after work drowning their torments at the bar of the press club. They were hardly role models. The women, on the other hand, were irreverent and feisty. They played a cat-and-mouse game with the censors,” Coronel writes in her later blog post, “Ensuring a place for women.” […]


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