Top Journalists Speak Out On Lack Of Female Editors

Panel On Gender Gap In Journalism Draws Large Crowd At Editors Conference

The downward trend of female leaders in U.S. newsrooms took center stage at the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) conference in Chicago, with editors calling for better efforts to put women in top editing roles and grooming younger female journalists to eventually take the top spot.

The concerns about the decreasing numbers of female editors were heightened in May when New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired. Last week, the influential Nieman Reports -- a publication from Harvard University's Nieman Foundation For Journalism -- devoted an entire article to the subject, headlined, “Where are the Women?”

The Nieman report, by reporter Anna Griffin, stated:

The results of this gender disparity in leadership are especially pernicious in journalism. To best serve the public as watchdogs and truth-tellers, news organizations need a broad array of voices and perspectives. To thrive financially, they must appeal to an equally broad array of potential viewers, listeners, and readers. Plus, content analyses and anecdotal evidence suggest that a newsroom leader's gender can have a subtle but important influence on everything from what stories get covered and how, to who gets promoted and why.

Specifically, Griffin cited ASNE data released earlier this year that women serve as top editors in just three of the nation's 25 largest papers, eight of the 25 largest papers with circulations under 100,000, and three of the top 25 under 50,000. Abramson left the Times after the census was completed; her departure means that now none of the top ten daily papers have a woman at the helm and only two of the top 25.

Griffin also noted a 2014 Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) survey that said women comprise just 31 percent of TV news directors and 20 percent of general managers, “despite making up more than 40 percent of the TV workforce. The same survey found that women accounted for just 23 percent of radio news directors and 18 percent of general managers.”

Such data did not sit well with attendees at the ASNE conference, both men and women, who called for improvements.

“You can look at the numbers, there aren't enough women [editors],” said Joyce Terhaar, editor of The Sacramento Bee. “But there aren't enough women in newsrooms.”

Anders Gyllenhaal, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy, pointed out that 13 of his company's 29 newspapers are run by women. Still, he said the industry as a whole needs improvements, specifically grooming women better for the top roles.

“It's something you have to look at when you are choosing other editors,” he said. “Clearly, there are not enough women editors in the high-profile positions and in the largest papers.”

Nancy Barnes, editor of the Houston Chronicle, said the pool of female editors to choose from has also shrunk, in part because some women have left the profession. Nieman Reports pointed out that female editors are still often paid less than men.

“Some women have taken themselves out to do other things,” she said, later adding, “I think some of it is cyclical.”

Women still hold top posts at some of the nation's major news outlets, including the Miami HeraldNewsday, and the Associated Press. Just today, Politico announced it had named Susan Glasser its editor.

In the past 15 years at least half of the nation's top ten newspapers -- The New York Times, New York Daily NewsNew York PostUSA Today and Chicago Tribune -- had women in the top editing posts. Each has left and been replaced by men.

On Wednesday, ASNE held a panel devoted to the issue that included Associated Press executive editor Kathleen Carroll, Miami Herald executive editor Aminda Marques Gonzalez, Fast Company leadership editor Kathleen Davis, and was moderated by Geneva Overholser, former Washington Post ombudsman and one time Des Moines Register editor.

The discussion drew one of the largest crowds of the conference and noted a variety of factors for the gender gap, pointing out that some women are just leaving the profession often because of family conflicts and demands.

“Sometimes editors, both men and women, make a choice that they don't want to do it anymore,” said Carroll, who cited her own experience as a married mother of one son. “These jobs are harder than they've ever been.”

Gonzalez pointed to what she called “the big lie: that we can have it all, but we really can't.”

Several panelists and audience members stressed that news organizations need to be more flexible in allowing women and men time off and shifting hours to tend to family needs, a move many are reluctant to embrace because of the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and ever-breaking news events. 

All of the panelists agreed that difficulties for women reaching top posts is not confined to newsrooms, adding that job cuts in the news industry have reduced opportunities. “We are not alone in this,” said Overholser.

The panelists said that changes in how women are perceived in hiring and performance reviews are necessary. Davis cited a study of 248 performance reviews of 180 men and women in media by both men and women and found that the term “abrasive” was used 17 times for women and never for men.

Such terms were discussed following Abramson's firing to indicate women are often criticized for being tough or strict, while men are usually praised.