October 29, 2019

Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance journalist and the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media.

I’ll never forget the moment when the first Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media class met in person. It was April 12, 2015, and none of us knew what to expect. Would this idea work? Would the participants connect with each other? Would we achieve what we hoped to?

Those fears didn’t last for long. The second that the 28 women in that first academy filled Poynter’s lobby, the energy was palpable and the decibel level raised many notches. They became fast friends — a bond that’s lasted for years.

One of the myths we’re sold about women is that we’re catty and untrusting of each other. Time and again, each women’s leadership academy has proven that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. One of my favorite things is watching each cohort connect, learn to trust each other, and discover that women are so much stronger when we’re working together.

Some of you might know me from the early days of this newsletter. I launched The Cohort in 2016 — on Tinyletter, no less! — and have been heartened to see how it’s grown since then. The Cohort was created to help spread the lessons of the women’s leadership academy to a wider audience, far beyond each academy week. I’m no longer a full-time employee at Poynter (and have my own newsletter these days), but I still work with Poynter as an adjunct and continue to organize these leadership academies.

This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.

That means I have the very lucky job of overseeing the academy selection process, lining up guest speakers, brainstorming presentations, helping to secure funders and of course, getting to know each new cohort of women. 

This work has been incredibly fulfilling, and the number of smart and talented women I consider friends has grown exponentially since the program’s inception. I can now pretty much guarantee that I’ll run into at least a couple of #PoynterSisters at whatever journalism event I go to. It’s a very sweet perk!

Here are my biggest takeaways since the academy launched:

1 — We can’t do this alone.

Many of the women who come to Poynter know what it’s like to be the odd (wo)man out in the workplace. As ambitious leaders and change-makers, academy participants often experience being the youngest employee in the room, the only person of color on a team, the lone voice calling out problems or the sole woman sitting at the table. Getting to watch these women meet each other and discover that they’re not alone is incredible. Witnessing them stay in touch beyond their academy week is even better. The leadership lessons, thought-provoking presentations and candid conversations that make up each academy are wonderful, but the real-life connections between participants are what’s truly invaluable. That’s why naming this newsletter was a no-brainer: The magic is in the cohort. 


2 — Success looks different for everyone.

Our goal from the start of this program was to grow the number of women in leadership positions across the news industry. And we’re accomplishing that! A recent survey of academy alumnae revealed that 64% of participants have more responsibility and are earning more money at work than before the program. More than half of those respondents, 54%, are making “significantly more” money. 

Yes, there are still not enough women in leadership positions, men are still out-earning women and journalism still has major diversity issues. This progress is encouraging nonetheless. I know we’re not far from the day when cohort alumnae are running more newsrooms and inspiring future generations of women.

That said, there are plenty of academy participants who aren’t particularly interested in landing a job in the C-suite. That’s OK, too. While the original goal of this program stands, I realize that there are plenty of ways in which women can affect positive change across the industry. That  requires women who are finding fulfilment in their jobs, doing work they feel passionate about and feeling empowered — not fancy job titles. In that same survey of participants, 76% have a clearer vision of what’s important in their career. As someone who’s perpetually figuring out her own career goals, I’m willing to call that a big measure of success.


3 — The cone of silence is a powerful tool.

Every women’s leadership academy is off the record, giving participants and speakers the opportunity to speak openly. There are a few downsides to that rule — namely, missing out on chances to tweet the brilliant things that people are sharing — but the benefits are overwhelming. Keeping the academy under a cone of silence means that people feel safe to be vulnerable, open and honest with each other. Throughout the week, women share their biggest frustrations and insecurities, as well as their greatest dreams and plans. Despite the fact that they’re from competing newsrooms, participants open up about their problems and collectively figure out solutions. There are sometimes tears, but there’s always a lot of laughter. I don’t think the academy would be as impactful without the cone of silence, and I often wonder what workplaces would look like if we all felt as comfortable being so transparent and vulnerable.


4 — The path to the top isn’t always clear.

We work hard to line up unique guest speakers for each academy. While they’re all successful women with wildly different careers, our speakers have one thing in common: Their paths to success were winding. Melissa Bell, the publisher of Vox Media, began her career as a legal assistant. Manoush Zomorodi found her voice as a podcaster after experiencing major burnout as a reporter. And Hearken CEO and co-founder Jennifer Brandel boasts one of the most interesting paths of all — her past lives include working as a psychometric test developer in Montreal and as a grape picker in Tasmania. 

This discovery — that there’s no clear path to success, and that there are plenty of detours along the way — always seems to be incredibly reassuring to participants. The truth is that none of us ever really know where we’re headed, and that’s true for even the smartest women in the room.


5 — Gender inequity is more than a women’s issue.

There have been many wins since this program launched. Participants have landed big promotions, launched ambitious projects, participated in panels and other public speaking opportunities, and built lasting relationships with each other. Again and again, I am reminded how generous, collaborative, supportive and caring women can be, and how powerful a force we can be when we’re working together. 

I also realize that we can’t do this alone. All-women programs like this one are invaluable, but they’re not a cure-all for industry-wide problems. As participants return to the real world, outside of the cocoon of the cone of silence, it’s as important as ever that they continue to identify and build relationships with allies in the workplace. Simply put, women can’t fix the gender divide in journalism without men. We need to do this work together.

When we kicked off the first Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media in 2015, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. But as soon as we saw how that class of 28 women connected (and how they’ve stayed in touch and excelled in their careers since then), we knew we had landed on something special. Since that time, more than 250 women have participated in this powerhouse program. And we’re just getting started. 

Are you ready to be part of the next cohort, or encourage someone you know to apply? You can sign up here to be alerted when applications open this Friday. (Pro tip: Go ahead and think about who you’d like to write you a letter of recommendation; that’s often the hardest part to wrangle. The deadline is Nov. 30.)

Good luck! And thanks for letting me pop in to say hello! I missed the Cohort community.



For additional insights, inside jokes and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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