Getting leadership right is hard. Getting leadership right if you’re a woman is harder.
We knew that much when we started contacting women who have led news organizations around the country over the past 40 years, but there was a lot more we wanted to know. How had they managed to make it to the top in an industry that has been resistant, if not downright hostile, to women? Did they have to act like men to get ahead? Were they sexually harassed? Did their marriages fall apart? Did they make a difference?
In interviews with nearly 100 women, we learned a lot about what it takes for women to lead, and some of it was not what we were expecting. The newsrooms we came up in were male to their core. You could scream and yell and kick trash cans if you felt like it, but you never, ever cried. A woman who felt tears coming on headed to the ladies’ room or her car because crying in the newsroom, as in any male-dominated workplace, was a sure way to get stuck with a “weak” label — maybe forever.
While that’s still true in many places, there are signs it’s changing. Melissa Bell, cofounder of Vox Media, is a crier, and her newsroom, made up largely of millennials, seems to embrace it. They think that shedding a few tears in an emotional situation contributes to a more empathetic and authentic workplace.
That’s a good thing.
Workplace culture is changing in another significant way. Spurred in part by the #MeToo movement, women — especially young women — deal with sexual harassment differently than did their mothers and grandmothers, who were fighting what amounted to a ground war. When these older generations of women encountered bad behavior on the part of men — which they said was often — they dealt with it themselves. They didn’t report it because, as Cynthia Hudson, senior vice president and managing director of CNN en Español, told us, “I honestly knew that if I said anything I would be fired.”
The many revelations of sexual harassment at media companies in recent years have produced a different response. Women have expressed outrage at not only men’s behavior but also the way their companies have responded, which is slowly or not at all. They have demanded change, and they have gotten it.
That’s a good thing.
Women still face many struggles in the workplace. They have a hard time developing leadership styles that fall somewhere between too wimpy and too bitchy. They worry about aging out of their jobs. They’re not comfortable asking for raises or demanding recognition of their worth. They wonder if they’ll ever be able to balance the demands of work and family, and they wrestle with an inordinate amount of doubt.
The women who have worked their way to the top haven’t solved all of these problems, but they do have valuable perspectives and advice to share with young women coming up behind them.
Aminda Marqués González, editor and publisher of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald and the mother of three, said she realized mid-career that it’s simply “a big lie” that women can do it all — at least all at the same time. “Sometimes you put your family first, and your job kind of takes a back seat, and other times your family takes a back seat to your job,” she said. “It’s a constant shifting of priorities and sometimes it’s over years and sometimes it’s over days.”
Less guilt. That would be a good thing.
And perhaps most surprising, despite their clear accomplishments, many women news leaders expressed a lack of confidence. They described feeling as if they were not worthy of their positions, questioned whether someone else could do the job better, and mentally steeled themselves to the possibility of getting tossed at any moment.
But they also pointed out that a certain amount of doubt is not a bad thing. Questioning yourself can help you think more deeply and listen more closely as long as you don’t let doubt paralyze you. Good leaders make tough decisions and move on. They aren’t intimidated by bullies or fear of the unknown or even the prospect of failure. Sometimes they cry. They are supremely confident some of the time and just confident enough to get things done the rest of the time.
And that’s an excellent thing.
Kristin Gilger and Julia Wallace, members of the faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, are authors of “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned About What It Takes to Lead.”