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It’s time to make journalism a field that supports and respects women

“Should we be cautious in describing our experience, careful not to alienate the men in the room or offend the funders who have so generously invested in our organizations? Or should we dispense with politeness and say in public what we say to each other in private?”

This fall, Monika Bauerlein from Mother Jones and I spoke at a gathering of media funders about being women CEOs. A couple of days beforehand, we talked strategy: Should we be cautious in describing our experience, careful not to alienate the men in the room or offend the funders who have so generously invested in our organizations? Or should we dispense with politeness and say in public what we say to each other in private?

We opted for honesty. I’ve never had so many people reach out after a talk to thank me and share their own stories.

That experience, along with a mini-sea change in women taking over leadership of nonprofit news organizations — which gives us all a community of women to turn to for advice, guidance, and commiseration — has gotten me thinking about the change that’s possible as women step in to shape the future of journalism.

There’s some truth to the stereotype that women often bring a more collaborative approach to leadership. (Monika and I have both been accused of being too collaborative, often by men who equate leadership with decisiveness above all else. I’ve decided to respond by being totally decisive about my commitment to being collaborative.) So in that spirit, I turned to the women in my newsroom to ask how journalism can get better for women in 2020.

Their responses are a blueprint for us all:

  • Hire more women as full-time journalists rather than freelancers.
  • Stop laying off skilled senior women. Women of color. White women. The most experienced women would now be leaders had they not been shown the door by top national and regional news organizations.
  • Make long-term investments in women who are local reporters in rural areas. In the South. In seasonal farm country. Marginalized women from these regions have unique insights ahead of the election and hold the cultural competency to root out compelling stories that the rest of the country remains ignorant about.
  • Put an end to women playing the “office mom” role of throwing all the parties, doing other people’s disgusting dishes, and/or scolding other people about not doing their own disgusting dishes.
  • Assign more women to cover “hard news” — politics, economics, and international.
  • Stop assuming that all women are the same. This industry is experienced differently by women of color. And our differences aren’t only racial: disabled, trans, undocumented, and other marginalized women are seldom the beneficiaries of inclusion initiatives.
  • Take women seriously. Just because we are women doesn’t mean we aren’t prepared, educated, and ready to ask tough questions.
  • Stop being afraid of crying at work, whether the tears come from fury or sorrow.
  • Take up the issues of gender and racial parity together, as one ambition.
  • Stop turning to women to pull everything together in the end — to pick up the pieces when someone else has failed to plan.
  • Men need to start to really understand what it’s like for women to be paid less, to face sexism, to not be taken seriously. And then they need to decide to do something about it.
  • Stop sexual harassment. Start paying women more. Mentor and support women. Advocate for women to be in leadership positions.

Demographics are on our side: Women far outnumber men in journalism schools. We are the future of this profession. Let 2020 be the year we stop making excuses and start making journalism a place where women — all women — are respected, treated fairly, and supported. Our newsrooms will be better places to work, and our journalism will better represent the public we are here to serve.

Christa Scharfenberg is CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

This fall, Monika Bauerlein from Mother Jones and I spoke at a gathering of media funders about being women CEOs. A couple of days beforehand, we talked strategy: Should we be cautious in describing our experience, careful not to alienate the men in the room or offend the funders who have so generously invested in our organizations? Or should we dispense with politeness and say in public what we say to each other in private?

We opted for honesty. I’ve never had so many people reach out after a talk to thank me and share their own stories.

That experience, along with a mini-sea change in women taking over leadership of nonprofit news organizations — which gives us all a community of women to turn to for advice, guidance, and commiseration — has gotten me thinking about the change that’s possible as women step in to shape the future of journalism.

There’s some truth to the stereotype that women often bring a more collaborative approach to leadership. (Monika and I have both been accused of being too collaborative, often by men who equate leadership with decisiveness above all else. I’ve decided to respond by being totally decisive about my commitment to being collaborative.) So in that spirit, I turned to the women in my newsroom to ask how journalism can get better for women in 2020.

Their responses are a blueprint for us all:

  • Hire more women as full-time journalists rather than freelancers.
  • Stop laying off skilled senior women. Women of color. White women. The most experienced women would now be leaders had they not been shown the door by top national and regional news organizations.
  • Make long-term investments in women who are local reporters in rural areas. In the South. In seasonal farm country. Marginalized women from these regions have unique insights ahead of the election and hold the cultural competency to root out compelling stories that the rest of the country remains ignorant about.
  • Put an end to women playing the “office mom” role of throwing all the parties, doing other people’s disgusting dishes, and/or scolding other people about not doing their own disgusting dishes.
  • Assign more women to cover “hard news” — politics, economics, and international.
  • Stop assuming that all women are the same. This industry is experienced differently by women of color. And our differences aren’t only racial: disabled, trans, undocumented, and other marginalized women are seldom the beneficiaries of inclusion initiatives.
  • Take women seriously. Just because we are women doesn’t mean we aren’t prepared, educated, and ready to ask tough questions.
  • Stop being afraid of crying at work, whether the tears come from fury or sorrow.
  • Take up the issues of gender and racial parity together, as one ambition.
  • Stop turning to women to pull everything together in the end — to pick up the pieces when someone else has failed to plan.
  • Men need to start to really understand what it’s like for women to be paid less, to face sexism, to not be taken seriously. And then they need to decide to do something about it.
  • Stop sexual harassment. Start paying women more. Mentor and support women. Advocate for women to be in leadership positions.

Demographics are on our side: Women far outnumber men in journalism schools. We are the future of this profession. Let 2020 be the year we stop making excuses and start making journalism a place where women — all women — are respected, treated fairly, and supported. Our newsrooms will be better places to work, and our journalism will better represent the public we are here to serve.

Christa Scharfenberg is CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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