Author | Photo James Pond

Breaking Barriers: How Women in Media Succeeded Despite a Deck Stacked Against Them

Imagine parking your newborn beside your desk at the office, or calling in a news story as you went into labor. From sexual harassment to systematic discrimination to the struggle of balancing work and family, these scenarios represent some of the structural and personal challenges that actual women have faced when forging their careers in media.

Now, a new book, There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned about What It Takes to Lead, tells the stories of remarkable women who broke through barrier after barrier at major media organizations over the past four decades. Beginning as editorial assistants, fact checkers and news secretaries, these powerful women ended up running multimillion-dollar news operations—effectively shaping what we read, and how we view and think about the world.

This week, we caught up with the book’s authors, Kristin Gilger and Julia Wallace.

SDTC: There were so many interesting stories in your book. Whose stood out to you the most?

KG & JW: That’s like asking us to name our favourite child. Every woman we interviewed shared an amazing story. Marcy McGinnis told us about walking into CBS News as a secretary and working her way up to the number two position in the news division. Wanda Lloyd drove us through her childhood neighbourhood of Savannah, Georgia, explaining how she came from a segregated community yet managed to become editor of one of the most storied newspapers in the South. Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery talked about how almost no one believed two women could co-edit a magazine when they shared the job at Mother Jones magazine. And then there’s NPR journalist Nina Totenberg, who told the story about being at a White House dinner. President Clinton was sitting on one side of her and another high-level official was sitting on her other side. The official put his hand on her leg and, instead of saying anything, Totenberg took his hand and held it through the entire dinner. She said she figured the hand couldn’t move if she was holding it.

That is wild. What were the most common issues you heard from the women you interviewed?

The need to constantly keep proving yourself. The feeling that women have about not being good enough, not being prepared enough, not being worthy enough. Even the most successful women expressed these feelings of doubt. We also heard a lot about sexual harassment. Almost every woman we talked to had experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sometimes it was subtle, but often it was not subtle at all, ranging from inappropriate comments to threats and physical aggression.

Many women talked about the near impossibility of balancing work and family. And they all spoke about the difficulty of figuring out a leadership style that worked for them—one that wasn’t too bossy or too wimpy.

What surprised you?

We didn’t deeply understand the sacrifices made by the women who came before us. Women began entering newsrooms in large numbers after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But while the law may have called for equal treatment, women found they were largely unwelcome. It was only after they began filing lawsuits that things really began to change in terms of opportunities for advancement, salary and work environment, among other things. For some of these pioneers, speaking up meant career suicide, but they just kept pushing anyway, which paved the way for us and for generations of other women who came up behind us.

From where you stand, what does the future look like for women in journalism?

We are very encouraged by the young women we teach every day at the Cronkite School. They’re incredibly talented and capable and ambitious, and they’re much less inclined to put up and shut up, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement. But we also know there’s a lot more work to be done. There are fewer women leading major news organizations today than there were fifteen years ago, and women still face many of the same problems in the workplace as they always have. More attention needs to be paid to things like family leave and child care and flexibility for parents of young children. We need policies and procedures that protect women from harassment and make it comfortable for them to voice concerns. We need equity in pay and mentoring and opportunities for advancement.

Addressing these issues is important for any industry, but especially for news organizations, which simply can’t serve their audiences if their workforces don’t reflect what those audiences look like—if they can’t attract and keep top female talent and a diverse workforce. Think of it as a sensible business proposition.

What’s the takeaway here?

We had two goals when we set out to write this book. First, we wanted to capture the stories of women who have moved up in news organizations over the past forty or so years and who have profoundly changed the news industry. No one had really told their stories before, and it’s a fascinating piece of journalism history. Second, we knew these women had learned a lot that could benefit young people who are just entering the news industry, or, for that matter, any industry traditionally dominated by men. These are the goals that informed the structure of the book. Each chapter tells a narrative of a women or a handful of women around a theme—work-life balance, sexual harassment, leadership styles, what it takes to lead at the top of an organization, etc. And then at the end of each chapter, we offer lessons that we distill from the narratives—and add a few of our own, based on our own experiences. We hope the result is both a good read and an informative one.

Did writing this book alter your view of your own career?

We wish we had done more. Women have made a lot of progress in news over the past four or five decades, but we never imagined at the start of our careers that we would look back at this point in time and see so much left to be done. We really thought that it would be totally different for our daughters, and that’s just not the case.

At the same time, we’re simply blown away by so many of the women we interviewed—both the early pioneers and the young women who are just moving into leadership roles at media companies. Our hope is that they can finish the job we started.

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