March 2, 2021

Below is an excerpt from The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women in media. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every two weeks.

At the beginning of 2021, I looked at my inbox and saw all the people who were not replying to my inquiries. I saw the applications I made and the recruiters who ghosted after filling their diversity quotas. I saw all the exhortations to training opportunities and fellowships, instead of capital investments and 401ks and health benefits.

And I tried to unravel those missing emails and trails to nowhere. What part of my network isn’t strong enough? What opportunities did I not seize upon or not respond to correctly, or with enough confidence? Is there a typo in my resume?

It turns out, I’ve spent much of my career pulling on all the wrong threads. The way women, and women of color in particular, are excluded from our industry is much more complicated than what is or isn’t filling our inboxes.

Who gets to be notable

Of course, I had plenty of riches in my inbox too. Not least of these are the powerful colleagues and leaders who support transformation in our industry, those who I consider my personal cohort. The last two years, with all their personal, professional and global disruptions, have been growing years for me. And now I have some seedlings poised to become great forests one day. Among them is the all-volunteer project Women Do News.

This exceptional group of volunteers has a simple mission: add more women journalists to Wikipedia. People of color are underrepresented and 90% of its contributors identify as male. The result is that on one of the most visited websites in the world — arguably the most visited site that is not a search engine, social media or commerce — less than 18% of English biographies are about women. The “Wikipedia gender gap” has been well documented and there are many groups doing essential work to make up for the site’s biases. Following groups in other industries like Women in Red, Art + Feminism and Wikiproject Women Scientists has taught me a lot about how important journalism is in the way we understand the world.

The news industry functions like an economy in many ways. Our currency — trust, reputation, belief in each others’ abilities — is based on faith in the system which tells us who and what is valuable. Wikipedia is a magnification of that system and so, like in the “real world,” credit is disproportionately conferred onto men. That system of who gets to be credible, or in Wikipedia’s vocabulary, who gets to be “notable,” is at the heart of our work.

Magnified at the ecosystem level

The lack of women journalists on Wikipedia is sometimes shocking. Among entries the Women Do News network has added so far are women who are pioneers for Asian Americans, who covered high-profile trials for 50 years, and who were the first women editors in their newsrooms. They have won Emmys and Murrows and Pulitzers — but unlike men with similar credentials, they couldn’t get that coveted prize of a Wikipedia page!

What is more shocking to me, though, is how many women journalists don’t get interviewed, profiled or awarded, how many women journalists who have outsized impact on the world don’t get obituaries when they pass. Through over a year of edit-a-thons, events and ongoing work, our network of about 300 people has nominated 224 journalists for entries so far. The work is slow; we’ve completed 28 new entries and improved 10. But many of these nominated women journalists who are clearly “notable” simply have not been written about or credited for their vital work well enough to support a Wikipedia entry.

Doing this work has exposed so much of how every small bias — from having mostly male media critics to passing up a woman for a promotion — gets magnified at the ecosystem level. What starts as discrimination, being given the wrong title or not included in a byline — heck, even an ignored email or application — bubbles up into systematic erasure of the contributions of many people. Social scientists call it “symbolic annihilation,” and the irony is that our own industry’s lack of inclusion has helped drive so many of us out of the ubiquitous record that is Wikipedia.

Our aim is not just to get more women journalists onto Wikipedia; it is to get more women journalists into the magazine articles, business reviews, profiles and records of our lives. It is to get more women journalists into the history books. It is to get more women journalists that little Wikipedia box that comes with search results, that confers upon them an agreed sense of significance. It is to get more women journalists the currency they need to continue to transform our industry.

And that, I hope, will help make your inbox and mine look much more promising in the future.

Subscribe to The Cohort to access curated lists of mentors, get to know more about each columnist, and participate in an ongoing conversation amongst women in media, technology and news.

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