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? Read the rest of this entry »