The first things you see when you walk into my new office at CNN are tons of photos of my kids hamming it up for the camera and a painting of Ruby Bridges.
My daughter painted the picture in third grade last year when she learned about the young girl who braved taunts and isolation to help integrate the New Orleans public schools, and Izzy told me she’d be honored if I would hang the painting in my office.
So that’s what we did over Labor Day weekend: My husband put up all the photos and pictures, including the one of Ruby Bridges. And my kids put a smattering of my politics and Supreme Court books on the shelves, washed my Politico mug and ate the chocolates out of my candy jar.
Thankfully, the barriers my female colleagues and I face in media today do not come anywhere close to the daily horrors that confronted Ruby Bridges and other courageous Civil Rights leaders from the 1960s. But we, too, are still pushing for parity, joined together by thoughtful initiatives like the Poynter Institute’s essay series as we grapple with the incredible complexities of gender and leadership.
I’m still too often the only woman in the room. And there are times when I’ve gotten into the room only because it belatedly occurred to a male boss or colleague that there weren’t any women around.
I want to focus on my work, not gender, and yet gender is always there – beneath the surface, or above it. We still face cultural indignities and pay inequities. When a woman at the top falls, the accusations of pushiness feel all too familiar, as my former colleague Susan Glasser pointed out so brilliantly in her piece “Editing While Female.”
I loved hearing from women I’ve looked up to in this summer’s session “Closing Journalism’s Gender Gap: A Forum on Women and Leadership” from Poynter and the National Press Club Journalism Institute. Here are three thoughts about ways to push back against barriers, and move us forward.
1. Speak up.
Be candid, but not accusatory, when you see something that needs to be set right – whether that’s the culture in the newsroom or a discussion about pay or promotion.
Sometimes things are wrong because no one has come up with a solution yet. When I started in 2011 as deputy White House editor at Politico – an organization that is now brimming with fabulous female leaders – the section leaders who oversaw coverage of Congress, the White House and politics were all male, and the deputies all female. That meant the voices presenting daily coverage plans on our 8 a.m. phone call were all male, every single day.
I pointed out this reality to Politico’s then-managing editor, Craig Gordon. He could have been defensive or dismissive. Instead, he agreed and asked me how to fix it. I suggested that he call on both the section editor and deputy by name, so that both had an invitation to speak. He started doing so the very next day, and it immediately changed the gender dynamics in an essential part of the editorial process.
By the time I served as managing editor at Politico, three of my four deputy managing editors were women. I had two talented female bosses, Kim Kingsley and Danielle Jones, and rising female stars at every level of the organization.
2. Find great colleagues and mentors of both genders.
The media industry generally is weak on mentoring and support. We’re all so slammed in this 24/7 culture – Is the story up? Did it get tweeted? Is the new version almost ready? Is there video? What’s the angle for later tonight? What’s coming for tomorrow? I know that too often, I reschedule appointments with up-and-coming journalists who ask to meet with me as I try to triage the latest crisis of the day. And I don’t make enough time to seek advice from my own mentors.
It’s been essential in my own career to surround myself with smart women – close friends like Beth Frerking, my former Politico colleague who is now editor-in-chief at The National Law Journal. In the moments when you want to share a triumph, or when you’re outraged or frustrated, or when you just snapped at your children because you were stressed out about work, nothing tops a good laugh with a wonderful female colleague or friend.
But don’t ever limit yourself: My most influential mentor has been a man. Rem Rieder, the former editor at American Journalism Review, showed me a path forward at a particularly low moment in my career. He taught me how to think bigger in my writing and awakened my love for editing.
He exposed me to strategic thinking about an organization’s future – and now, a few years later, I am charting a new course for CNN’s digital politics coverage.
He showed me that there’s nothing out there more entertaining than journalism. We spent our days at AJR in spasms of laughter, often joking that we were having so much fun we’d have to be separated. When it came time for that separation – because I missed the excitement of working in daily news and was ready for my next challenge – I talked to Rem about it. He not only understood, he also helped me get my next job at USA Today.
I’m proud of my own work advising and promoting both talented women and men. If we focus only on one gender, we will never achieve parity.
3. Ban bossy?
The range of acceptable behavior for female leaders is still depressingly small.
And because there are so few of us, individual missteps or misunderstandings get magnified and dissected – and discussions about gender and leadership inevitably follow.
I am fascinated by the different styles of the female leaders I’ve worked with – the best all share a comfort with directing the action, a candor in working through problems and an ability to listen and modify their thinking.
One of the keys for me in coming to CNN was my conversation with Cathy Straight, my wise and unflappable former boss at USA Today who is now working for the digital side of the network and loves the company. Cathy is low-key but never low energy. When I interviewed with Meredith Artley, the editor-in-chief of CNN Digital, I loved her creativity, her enthusiasm, her intelligence and her irreverence – and loved the idea of working for her.
I can already see leadership potential in my 9-year-old daughter: She, too, has charisma, creativity and vision. I tell her she has what it takes to be a leader. I tell her to feel comfortable speaking up, always. I want her to assert herself (she seems to have no problem with that), and I don’t want her to worry as much as I did growing up – and still do — about whether everyone likes her.
But I also want her to learn to listen. We need more of that, especially in the media industry, from male and female leaders alike. I don’t want her to be so single-minded about asserting herself that she forgets to focus on what the people around her are saying. Newsrooms work best as a creative team where great ideas pop up from all directions. If there isn’t a healthy give-and-take, the results suffer – and so do our readers and viewers.
Izzy asked me recently how I have helped other women: Her father had told her that’s something I focused on during my time at Politico. It hadn’t occurred to me to talk to her about my own efforts. But one evening, while I was – of course – still at the office, my husband discussed gender equality with our daughter, and my own small role in trying to alter the media landscape.
It was a great reminder that as we try to change the world for the next generation, we need to make sure they know what it looks like for us – and what it looked like for the pioneers who came before us.
By Rachel Smolkin