ONA18 encourages women of color to lead

Members of ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator. Photo: Jen Mizgata

Gender and diversity became unofficial conference tracks on the first two days of ONA18.

From addressing the gender wage gap in newsrooms and how women of color deal with online harassment to celebrating stories of women’s leadership, conversations about race and gender found an indelible place in this community.

Panels and sessions such as “Finding a Seat at the Table,” “Internetting While Brown/Black,” and the “Women’s Leadership Accelerator” gave a new platform to women of color in leadership positions across news organizations to tell their stories bravely. They invited and encouraged women and men to listen and contribute to the narrative.

No surprise that women are being harassed

Versha Sharma’s panel on internetting as a woman of color aimed to create a safe space for women to talk about the range of abuse they face on the internet.

“I do on-camera work and I have faced a lot of harassment and violent threats, rape and sexual assault threats, and it is not uncommon for other journalists like me to have to deal with this every day,” said Sharma, managing editor at NowThis and an active ONA board member.

About 70 percent of women have experienced multiple types of harassment, threats or attacks and nearly one-third of female journalists have considered leaving the industry because of online harassment, according to a report by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Despite being in a leadership position, Sharma said she deals with the feeling of being an impostor almost every day.

“That’s the way the industry is set up,” she said. “Look at the Serena Williams incident from last week — somebody at the height of her career and game can be gaslit and made to feel less than for something men do in every single tournament.”

If Williams gets harassed, it’s no surprise that women in the newsroom are being harassed, too, Sharma said.

Only one man in the room

After the Women’s Leadership Accelerator session, Kim Fox of The Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted a photo, pointing out that only one man showed up to listen to stories of success and hardships of women in leadership positions at newsrooms.

“What I am shocked and disappointed about is the lack of curiosity, especially by male managers, who just weren’t there,” Fox said.

A programming oversight exacerbated the situation — a session on male allies that encouraged men to support underrepresented women was scheduled at the same time.

“It’s ironic because that session sort of stemmed from my conversation with Fergus Bell who expressed interested in joining the conversation and understanding how men can support women!” she added.

Sharma, who was part of the ONA programming committee, admitted the scheduling conflict but wondered how organizers could encourage men to show up for these discussions.

The burden is on men to do the work

Justin Ellis of WCPA on HBO was the one man who showed up.

He said he wanted to support the women’s community and hear their stories, but he wondered whether he was invading a safe space meant for women to express themselves.

While the idea of giving women space might make sense, Ellis said multiple sessions at the same time can’t be ignored to justify why the turnout was low at both the events.

He stressed the burden is also on men to do the work and really understand the struggles women face before declaring support.

“I understand how exhausting it must be for women to advocate for themselves,” Ellis said. “I am sure every woman wonders why they need to be shouting all the time to be heard.”

CNN Digital’s Sharif Durhams, who is also the new president of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, said there’s still a lot of groundwork to be done.

“Not many are still aware that there’s a problem,” he said. “The newsroom is still a lot of white men at the top. We need to educate more men because a solution will only be effective if they understand the problem.”

Don’t forget to lift each other up

In a featured panel discussion about the struggles they had to overcome to find a seat at the table, with Sharon Chan of Seattle Times, Elena Bergeron of SB Nation and Kristie Gonzales of KVUE, Gonzales talked about how women need to take control of the narrative and invite men to the conversation.

Chan shared her experience as an intern when she called out her paper’s managing editor over a racist headline and how this action led to the editor thanking her and eventually becoming a mentor to her.

The panel talked about how women need to help one another, lift each other up and do their part to encourage other women to speak up. Gonzales shared the example of how the women in the Obama administration have laid the groundwork, using the amplification model to support their fellow women colleagues.

“Leadership is all about leading by example,” said Chan, who encouraged the women in the room to become mentors to young women.

Gonzales also emphasized that it’s a threat to the news business if the numbers of women and diverse communities continue to remain low going forward.

“There’s a real problem in your newsroom when young journalists, women and people of color are leaving to make job moves that are horizontal and linear,” Bergeron said.

The onus is on hiring managers to make the effort and take ownership of making newsrooms more diverse.

“If you don’t have diversity in your newsroom it will be hard for you to tell stories in diverse communities,” added Gonzales.

“Don’t quit!”

Nearly half a century after women started entering the workforce, only one-third of newsrooms are female, according to a report by the American Society of News Editors. Of this one-third, many are already thinking of leaving the industry as the pitfalls of the job in this digital and connected world are rapidly growing.

Data has pointed to the newsroom gender gap for decades but the lack of open and honest conversations in the industry has held back women from speaking up.

Acknowledging this, “Please don’t give up, please don’t quit!” was a sentiment that women echoed across all sessions and panels. In a time where journalism schools have 80 percent female students and yet the gender ratio in the newsroom remains askew, it’s important that women remain in journalism.

“Use platforms like ONA to have open and honest conversations. We’re here to support you and encourage you. It’s important that you know that you’re not alone,” Sharma said.