In the midst of helping my mother move out of my childhood home, I came across a book in my old closet. It is a book about female journalists, given to me by a journalist who visited my high school for a career workshop. At the time I planned to go to college for journalism and broadcasting.
Clearly, this book had been written to mark the strides women journalists have made in the past decade (It was then 2004), covering the likes of Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. Yet today, nearly another whole decade later, we are still discussing “the rise of the women journo”. Computer programs are being made to measure women’s involvement in the news. The first item listed in today’s Google news search when I enter “female reporters” is a list of Miami’s “Top Five Hottest TV Reporters.” Hardly declaring their skill over their looks.
There are many great journalists who happen to be female. Honestly, due to the amount of writing I read by females, and the number of journalists I know who are women, I was unaware that the percentage of female journalists are still drastically lower than men.
The year I graduated from college, 2009, a survey reported that “women were 34.8 percent of newsroom supervisors and 37 percent of newsroom employees”, and those numbers had dropped a bit from the previous year. If I look through my Emerson College commencement booklet from that year, I can see the following: 42 women graduating in the Department of Journalism, just about twice as many as the men in the program. While encouraging, this ratio is not realistic outside of the small communications and arts school.
The Women’s Media Center, a non-profit women’s media organization, published a 2013 study titled The Status of Women in the US Media 2013. Not only did they find that male bylines exceeded women bylines by 3 to 1 for the 2012 election, male bylines outnumbered women bylines at four out of six sites. They also found that most women writers for online news were delegated to writing about food, family, and fashion, though no statistics are provided.
The fact that a Tumblr page titled “Said to Lady Journos” not only exists, but includes gems such as “You don’t look like a crime reporter”, “Did you get some cake, girly?”, “Why are you calling me on a Friday night? You should be out finding a husband so you won’t need to work and can stay at home”, and “‘It’s so funny that women are allowed to work in television now’”, is maddening. According to the blog, these are all statements said by station owners, police officers, and even a senator, to a woman journalist.
Even now, as this summer’s kerfuffle over women in journalism and women’s magazines has died down a bit, I find another piece highlighting the lack of female journalists. Statistics tallied from the September stories in the Guardian show that under a third of all bylines were from women, with women writers mainly outnumbering men in sections such as Fashion. Education, Money and Travel. And many women’s pieces get labeled as Life and Style regardless.
“If I pick up the New York Times, I’ll look at the front page and do a little count of how many women’s bylines (there are), how many men…and often, there is more men, just by my observations there,” says Gaby Dunn, when asked if she thinks there is still a lack of female writers. Dunn graduated from Emerson College as a journalism major in 2009, and went on to write an award winning blog, 100 Interviews. She has since written for various sites, such as Thought Catalog, New York Magazine, xoJane, and Glamour. She contributes to The New York Times Magazine and Cosmopolitan, and is a staff writer for the Daily Dot.
While Dunn thinks there has been a rise in women’s sites, she finds it unfortunate that women are not as prominent in mainstream publications.
I have to wonder…are women’s specific sites helpful, or do they separate us more?
“When I first started freelancing I had a real problem with that because I would try to submit pieces to women’s sites thinking that…because I am a woman, whatever I was writing about would make sense for the site.”
Yet this was not the case. Dunn was repeatedly told that her pieces did not qualify as ‘women’s interest’, despite the fact that she is a woman. At one point, her ex-boyfriend even had a piece accepted to a women’s site before she did. Did she ever feel that being a woman was a disadvantage, then?
“No, only when I thought that I needed to be a certain way,” says Dunn. “Once I realized that it didn’t matter and I could pitch wherever, then it stopped bothering me. But at first it made me feel bad because I was like…am I not a lady? Am I not woman enough? I don’t understand.”
Regardless, does the content found in women’s magazines and sites deserve the recent criticism?
Port Magazine’s “A New Golden Age”, may have catalyzed the initial summer storm surrounding women writers and women’s interest magazines. While Anna Wintour declined to be included in the piece, the individuals who were then highlighted as some of the biggest magazine editors were all men. When asked for comment, a writer involved with the piece requested to no longer continue the discussion, but cited that there were plenty of women’s magazines that he respected, Vogue being one that he had wanted to include. Without Wintour’s agreement, though, she could not be included.
This begs the question of why the only woman would be from a women’s magazine, when not all of the (male) editors were writing for men’s interest magazines. It demonstrates the gap in men to women highlighted in this field, and the entire debate showcased the fact that some observers separate women’s interest from serious stories. New Republic responded to the Port piece with an article titled ‘Can Women’s Magazines Do Serious Journalism?’, which begged the question of whether women’s interest stories were less influential than men’s interest, or general interest, due to the label of ‘women’.
“There’s been great [pieces] in places like Marie Claire and even Joanna Coles at Cosmopolitan is sort of trying to change the way Cosmo does stuff.” Dunn pointed out.
It’s true that Coles is aiming for more variety in Cosmopolitan, and bringing more stories about politics and careers to the table. Currently, if I go to the American Cosmo site, I see a mixture of stories (makeup, exercise, a story about an orphan, a story about a writer’s grandmother, and the expected sex and fashion stories), while the top three stories on the UK version discuss rape, breast cancer, and skin care.
“Sure, there is a mix,” Dunn says when I ask her about the range of topics in women’s magazines. “There could be a story about lipstick, and then a great story about Afghani women…It’s not just women’s magazines, either. Have you ever opened a GQ or an Esquire?” Dunn points out. If I go to Esquire’s site, I immediately see the following stories: ‘International Sexy Women’, ‘Everything You Need to Know About Stephen King Movies’, and ‘Wear This Sport Coat, Drink This Scotch’.
“But for some reason men’s interests, like sports, or whatever, are seen as these noble, very serious topics…whereas ‘women’s interests’, that are makeup or boy bands, or whatever, are seen as stupid,” says Dunn. “Why? They’re the same level of stupid…how is (that) any more shallow than the obsession with the Super Bowl?”
Says it is condescending.
I decided to reach out to a writer for Sports Illustrated, Jeff Wagenheim. Wagenheim used to write for the Boston Globe, and then joined Disney Publishing, where the content was marketing mainly toward women and parents. Parenting magazines, according to Wagenheim, have about 99 percent female readership.
“Even when I wrote stories from a father’s perspective, I always had to be aware that most who’d be reading my stories were mothers,” writes Wagenheim. “That experience might have been what it was like for early female sportswriters doing stories for a mostly-male readership, although it also was different. I never felt a need to assert my credibility or otherwise seek respect, as women writing about sports had to do before the fan base became less male-dominated.” But is the problem of credibility for women found outside of sports journalism?
Though Sports Illustrated may be viewed as men’s interest, I was curious if this would ever categorize a writer as ‘less serious’. Wagenheim includes in his email that criticism can be heavy, though most criticism comes from fans being skeptical that he may be out of touch or unqualified to comment on a specific sport.
While he acknowledges that many women had to overcome the fact that others viewed them through a gender lens, he cites Lesley Visser and Jackie MacMullan as two pioneers as female sports writers, and hopes that women don’t find it to be such a burden when working in sports writing and reporting today. He points out that it isn’t only magazines geared toward men that may undermine women.
“Wondertime, the magazine I helped launch, made it a policy to not talk down to women, but a lot of the other parenting magazines did just that,” he writes. “They’d ignore the intellect and zero in on the emotional frailty of new parenthood, churning out vapid stories that supported the perception that women’s publications aren’t serious. What’s missed in all of this is that female readers and female writers are — or at least can be — serious, if only the industry gives them license to be.”
They hold their own.
This is how Marie Claire readers and writers are described to me.
“I’m really proud of what we do at Marie Claire. And I came from Forbes Magazines, and I’ll confess that early on, there was an initial [doubt]…especially when I told my colleagues at Forbes that I was going to Marie Claire…you can imagine the eyebrows that were raised. Like, ‘What? What are you thinking? That’s the end of your career’. And yet I’ve done the best work of my career here.”
Lea Goldman is the Features and Special Projects Director for Marie Claire. Marie Claire was name dropped more than a few times when I was asking women about what they thought about women’s magazines and serious journalism. I was reminded of the fact that, over a year ago, I had clipped a Marie Claire piece focused on finances, and another concerning a controversial discussion on how modern motherhood was undermining women. These were certainly not fluff pieces. Goldman was kind enough to chat with me for a few minutes by phone, where I expressed my concern.
I thought about the notion that there has been a sudden rise in female writers, or that it is an oddity, when I know so many talented and hardworking women. “There are a lot of great female journalists, great stories, and yet it’s not being adequately recognized…” I started.
“I…totally agree.” Goldman says. I invite her to dig in on this train of thought.
“I’ve always felt that was the case. That there is a general dismissal of women’s magazines as being venues of real, or hard journalism.”
Perhaps this is due to the fact that more than half of the journalistic community will never pick up a women’s magazine, because they’re not the target audience.
“There’s a stereotype that women read these magazines while at the salon and, that being said, it can be very powerful. It’s a precious set of time where a woman may be multitasking, focused…and the magazine is a great outlet for information,” Goldman continues.
“There is a general misconception of what they’re about, and probably for a long time they earned that reputation(…) but these days, in an era when print recognizes that every page has to pack a punch in order to keep the attention, that is now more relevant than ever.”
Yet, in many of the follow up pieces I read, women went on about how these magazines focus on makeup and fashion, which to them detracted from the more serious pieces. Does she hear this?
“That’s very old thinking. I have to smirk when I hear things like that (…) There’s been a generational shift in how women view power, confidence, success…meaning in 2013 there is no contradiction between a woman who reads the Wall Street Journal every day and a woman who pays attention to the latest fashion…smart, savvy, modern women understand that you can enjoy both. The most successful women understand that.”
So, how are editors such as her making strides against this thinking, and fighting against this stereotype?
“Look, it doesn’t occupy every minute of my day, and I don’t come to work with that agenda. I will say that I feel very much that I am the embodiment of the Marie Claire reader. I am interested in fashion, and yet I am thoroughly absorbed by the news.”
There is no contradiction. Those who know her understand that.
“I have a busy career that I am really proud of, and that I do not just for a paycheck, although that’s important, but because I really like working. And I find it really satisfying. And at the same time, I really like shopping. And I really like to get a blowout. And I’m not embarrassed to say that.” Goldman says.
However, she states that young women today understand this, and that they don’t take the critiques of women’s magazines very seriously.
And if they do, they shouldn’t.
Goldman’s observation creates an interesting analogy. Judging a publication as less serious because it prints a fashion piece next to a piece on GMO farming is like dismissing half of someone’s resume because they had their nails done. It’s time to look at the big picture.
To punctuate the strides women are making, though, I have to remember something a very accomplished woman in the field of business and communications told me a few hours ago. She told me to not focus on what I don’t know how to do yet, but to affirm what I can do. What we’re good at and kicking at. Statistically, women are behind as reporters, writers, and journalists. We can say this for many fields. However, I like the idea of strengthening what women out there are doing right now. Do it more, and do it often. We can’t become stagnant where we are lacking. We can say that some pretty great pieces are being written, and we can’t wait to read more. You know we will.