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Where My Ladies At?

Opinion | April 28, 2014

Untangling the Debate About Women & Digital Media

In a sense, it’s old news that women are underrepresented in most forms of “serious” journalism and are often pigeonholed into writing about topics that are less respected. Organizations like the International Women’s Media Foundation release annual reports chronicling the status of journalism for women, and change isn’t occurring very rapidly. While this trend extends throughout most platforms of media, the most recent attention has been devoted to the supposed lack of women founding digital media startups.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the obsessive chatter about Vox.com and Fivethirtyeight, two young startups whose founders—Ezra Klein and Nate Silver—no longer require an introduction. About a month ago, a writer for The Guardian named Emily Bellpenned a frustrated piece about the dearthof female hires at these two outlets. In titling the piece, she left the reader doubtless about her message: “Journalism Startups Aren’t a Revolution if They’re Filled With All These White Men.”

The piece cites then-recent announcements from both Silver and Klein as they built their respective staffs, and remarks that the number of women being brought on to these organizations is unsettlingly low. Bell mocks Silver’s comments about constructing “clubhouse chemistry,” and says that Vox.com, formerly known as Project X, “looks a lot more like Project XY.”

Ann Friedman, a freelance journalist and former editorwho is often found on the frontlines of the conversation about women and journalism, wrote a piece about this phenomenon for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in mid-April. Her approach was to highlight the work of 16 outstanding women whose digital media accomplishments were as significant as Klein’s and Silver’s, but not gaining nearly as much attention. “So let’s discuss the women who are out there with their own media startups,” she writes. “Their biographies share much in common with more venerated media darlings.”

For the most part, her piece was a godsend.Rather than passively commenting on the imbalanced coverage of women’s and men’s media projects, she actively promoted a handful of highly successful endeavors that were deserving of equal airtime. The best way to move towards a more level playing field for women in journalism is to consciously seek out talented women, rather than settling for the status quo and focusing on men’s work—which is much more readily available.

 Friedman mentions several different online outlets in her piece, but a few stand out for various reasons. News Deeply, a project headed by Lara Setrakian, takes an approach that strongly resembles Vox.com’s explanatory style of web journalism. The project began with Setrakian’s flagship effort called Syria Deeply, designed in 2012 to help readers develop a grasp on the developing situation there. In principle, the idea behind News Deeply is very similar to Vox.com—but we hear a lot less about it. (The first story about News Deeply that comes up on a Google search is from Rookie, the feminist online magazine that also appears on Friedman’s list. Search for “Vox.com,” and a deluge of coverage comes pouring in—from the New York Times to The Washington Post to New York magazine and countless others.)

Now, there are other variables between Vox.com and News Deeply aside from the gender of their founders. So the above example isn’t a perfect comparison. But here’s something that’s hard to ignore: Vox.com has 3 co-founders— Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Melissa Bell. Most narratives about the startup mention only Klein, or Klein and Yglesias. Bell is a founder within the same organization, and her name was hardly mentioned in the original tsunamiof the outlet’s attention.

Friedman addresses this in her CJR piece, but there is something problematic in the quotes she selects for the piece. Friedman quotes Bell as saying: “I felt like maybe me not talking about my role was part of the problem […] that I hadn’t been asserting the fact that I was a founder, that I hadn’t been asserting the fact that this was my idea along with Ezra.” She goes on to add: “Is it the media’s fault for picking up on Ezra? Is it my fault for not speaking up?”

Bell’s conclusion that some of the problem is her own fault is truly disheartening. A female lack of “assertiveness” or “confidence” is a recurring theme in writing about the gender gap in journalism as well as other fields. Some have hypothesized that women’s lack of pitching confidence lands them fewer assignments, which in turn leads to more male bylines in magazines. A recent popularstoryfrom The Atlantic focused on the “confidence gap” between men and women that hinders success for the latter. This explanation for inequality in the workplace places much of the blame on women themselves, rather than on systemic factors.

To reiterate, the surest and most productive way to achieve more equality for female journalists is to seek out their high-quality work and promote it—as Friedman did with her CJR story, and as many female-centric outlets (such as The Hairpin and Rookie) are already doing. Women are doing serious work in the realm of digital media, and should be recognized in the same fashion as their male counterparts. Friedman’s list is by no means exhaustive, but it highlights a very important point: this lack of attention does not indicate an actual shortage of high-quality work produced by women.