First Female S.F. Chronicle Editor-In-Chief Speaks Out On The Industry's Glass Ceiling

Audrey Cooper does not believe it should have taken a century and a half for the San Francisco Chronicle to name its first female editor-in-chief.

And she should know. She's that editor.

Cooper, who was named to the top post at the Chronicle on Wednesday, said a glass ceiling still exists at news organizations and she's personally had experiences where she felt she wasn't treated equally because of her gender.

“Obviously there is (a glass ceiling),” Cooper said. “I think all of the coverage of [New York Times editor Jill Abramson's 2014] departure laid bare a lot of things that other female editors felt but hadn't really articulated. They're much more subtle than people might think. Sexism in general is a lot more subtle than it used to be 20 years ago. Yes, I've had the experiences that I think that I was not treated the same as men based on my gender.”

But Cooper praised her supervisors at the Chronicle and parent company Hearst for giving her initial promotions during her career there, noting, “I was eight months pregnant when I had my interview to become (Chronicle) managing editor.”

Cooper also pointed to problems news organizations have retaining working mothers.

“I think the news business in particular has a really difficult time retaining young women or 30-something women because so far we are the only ones who can have babies,” said Cooper, 37, who has been at the paper in different roles since 2006. “And it is difficult to be in a job that you do 24 hours a day and can be called at any time and also have a child. I think that's just a reality, it is difficult to keep people in a job like that.”

A married mother of a two-year-old boy, Cooper added that, “I don't plan to have a second one because I love my job and it would be too difficult.”

It is notable that she is the first woman to lead the paper as it approaches its 150-year anniversary on Friday.

“Yes, I think 150 years is a really long time not to have a woman in this position,” she said. “I think it is an interesting historical fact that I am the first at the Chronicle and I look forward to the day when women across industries, particularly ours, can rise to the top of them and not have it noted so frequently that they're the first.”

But such change may be difficult given that the number of female editors at top papers has dwindled. Media Matters noted last year that just two top editors among the top 25 circulation daily newspapers were women: Deborah Henley at Newsday and Nancy Barnes at the Houston Chronicle.

“When I got into this industry, there was a lot more discussion about diversity in the newsroom than you have now on a national basis,” she said. “I think that's because shortly thereafter we really, really hit the skids and everybody was having serious problems and laying people off and it wasn't the top concern anymore. Now that I think a lot of publications are stabilizing you start to see this emerge again.”

The New York Times broke its own glass ceiling in 2011 when it hired Abramson as executive editor, but fired her last spring.

Along with the Times, the New York Daily NewsNew York PostChicago Tribune, and USA Today are top 10 papers that were led by women during the past 15 years. Among the remaining top 25 daily papers, at least eight had women as the top newsroom bosses during the same time span. 

Cooper added that the challenges of working mothers in the news business need to be addressed and having women in top roles can help younger female journalists.

“I know that in our newsroom almost every reporter works at times at night and on the weekend and if you have to take your kid to soccer class on Saturdays it can be really difficult to do that and be a parent who is present in your child's life,” she said. “I know among reporters in our newsroom, I try really hard to keep young mothers here and it takes a consciousness that it's important. If you are a mother with a young kid, you have empathy. So in that larger scheme I think more women are always supportive of other women that they see go through the same thing.”

She later added, “There are several former women editors that I would consider mentors, and Nancy [Barnes] in Houston I've gotten to know well and her paths to getting to the top of all the papers that she has helmed has been more difficult I think than mine because she was really the first. We always stand on the shoulders of the people who come before us.”

Cooper said improvement can be made if women are allowed to rise up the editing ladder.

“It's very possible to get more women into top leadership roles,” Cooper stressed. “The number of women at the top is really only symbolic of the problem that lies underneath, which is keeping women in the industry. You can't get them to be the top job if they leave five years before they would have made it there.”