June 8, 2015

On May 18, 2015, something remarkable happened: All of the bylined stories on the front page of The Wall Street Journal were written by women.

This rare convergence, first noted on Twitter, was met by turns with praise that it happened at all and disappointment that it didn’t happen more often.

Yes, more women on The Wall Street Journal’s front page more often. That would be good.

Especially since, when it comes to gender balance, the Journal is one of the better-situated major legacy news outlets, according to the Women’s Media Center in its annual report on the status of women in journalism and other forms of media.

But that position is relative and reflects a pernicious gender gap across the outlets surveyed, which included the nation’s 10 most widely circulated newspapers, the national evening news broadcasts, the most-viewed Internet news sites and two international wire services.

Only three outlets achieved or exceeded parity: the Chicago Sun-Times, The Huffington Post and the two anchor chairs at PBS Newshour.

“Women, who are more than half of the population, write only a third of the stories,” observes Julie Burton, president of the center, in her introduction to the report. “Media tells us our roles in society – it tells us who we are and what we can be. This new report tells us who matters and what is important to media – and it is not women.”

If the voices of women are muted, the voices of women of color are all but non-existent. At daily newspapers, white women held 31 percent of the jobs. Black women held just over 2 percent, Latinas and Asian women just under 2 percent. The numbers in broadcast are better, especially at large-market local stations. But they remain disturbingly skewed. For digital, the report based its findings on just four news providers: Huffington Post, CNN.com, The Daily Beast and FoxNews.com. But newer digital kids such as FiveThirtyEight, The Marshall Project and First Look Media appear to be following the same white male-heavy model in top leadership roles. One outlier is BuzzFeed, which has made a very public commitment to diversity. The publisher and two executive editors are women. Two of the three are women of color.

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Overall, though, as social media and tech companies get into the news game, bringing their woman problem with them, the disparity promises to get worse: at Facebook, Google and Twitter men accounted for fully 70 percent of the workforce in 2014.

It’s not that women aren’t interested. At journalism schools nationwide women continued to outnumber men, representing two thirds of all students in 2013.

So what’s causing the problem?

Since last year’s report, we’ve seen an intensified focus on some significant obstacles to newsroom parity for women.

1. Some women in journalism get brutally harassed. Some people think that’s OK.
Even if you’ve already read these excellent pieces by Amanda Hess, Amy Wallace and Laura Snapes, go back and read them again. The bullying has to stop.

2. Women in journalism are more subject to burnout and are leaving as a result.
This report, from the University of Kansas, is an indictment of a culture ripe for overhaul.

If you need persuading, consider Exhibit A: a journalist from North Carolina who shared in a Pulitzer Prize and a Polk Award for a series on domestic violence had already left her job for a PR position by the time the awards were announced.

3. Women are (still) inordinately judged on their appearance. A male news anchor in Australia wore the same suit every day for a year and no one noticed. As the WMC report states: “Women media professionals and interview subjects are more restricted than their male counterparts by age and appearance, and traditional divisions into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news are often themselves gendered.”

4. Men are (still) considered the experts. There are a lot of #AllMalePanels, and there’s a Tumblr to prove it.

5. Women in journalism can do more to support one another. Four top women journalists recently got together to address the question: “Can You Think About Rising?” They explored important points like a higher tolerance of “bad behavior” by men and the increased range of options the digital revolution has created.

But just as important is what was neglected — namely women of color and the “M” word, as in motherhood. Diversity fared especially poorly. No women of color were included in the conversation, and diversity was mentioned only in passing in the published discussion.

And aside from a dismissive remark in the lead about “the whole can-moms-have-it all freakout,” the “M” word did not appear in the piece, even during the discussion of “family” and “work-life balance.” Both important factors, but not the same thing as being a mom and a top-tier journalist. When you have the likes of Jill Abramson, Susan Glasser, Susan Goldberg and Julia Turner all in one place, that’s a lot of power, and a lot of responsibility. This Nieman Reports piece, which tackles motherhood and “sensitivity to gender and racial balance” does a better job.

Among the range of contributors to the Nieman piece was Karen Magnuson, editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and chair of the diversity committee for the American Society of News Editors. She praised the hiring of women into top jobs at some newspapers. “I certainly see strides,” she said in the report. “But when it comes to people of color we’re not making the same progress.”

The solution is simple to articulate. But to achieve it requires resolve. News organizations must commit to “goals for improving their gender diversity and create both short-term and long-term mechanisms for achieving them,” Burton writes in WMC’s report. “They should ask themselves why their newsrooms aren’t 50 percent women and what steps they need to take to get there. And if they aren’t asking themselves these questions, then that’s a problem.”

As BuzzFeed’s Stacy Marie Ishmael put it:

A parting thought. That Wall Street Journal Tweet from May? Turns out the same thing happened at least once before – in 2012.

When will we know we’ve succeeded? The day we stop noticing.

Sara Catania is Vice President of digital news for NBC4 Southern California and a faculty member for the first ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Follow her on Twiter @Catanify.

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