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How women work, Part 1: Does being a female journalist matter when covering violence?


Photo by Marigona Sherifi / Flickr

Editor’s note: This seventh article in a 12-part series of stories based on interviews with 35 women journalists covering violence around the world. Because women were promised anonymity, only pseudonyms are used here.

Does being a woman matter in journalism?

Yes, said women journalists who cover violence. Being a woman can be both a disadvantage and a benefit, said the 35 women interviewed for this series.

Women who covered violence and conflict say they received different assignments, were treated differently on the job, and had different interactions with sources than their male colleagues.

Some found themselves the lone woman in male-dominated environments, having to prove women are as capable as men.

Others said their sex gave them access to female sources in societies where women are discouraged from talking publicly to men, including male journalists.

Some suggested that women are more empathetic than men.

And all agreed they navigate their roles in a world that is not gender-neutral.

“Culture is very sexist. Culture is not balanced,” said Sofia, a journalist in Russia. “Despite the fact that may women cover wars, still people are waiting for the male as a hero.”

Female journalists said their experiences as women definitely shaped the way they practice journalism.

“You can’t divorce yourself from your experience as a woman,” said Martina, who works in Mexico.

Julia, a Belgian journalist, said: “Everything I do is influenced by the fact I grew up a woman.”

And not only do women feel sex has shaped their perspectives, it has shaped the perspectives of those they work with—both sources and employers.

The boys’ club

For women who covered war and combat, sexism was an everyday experience.

“The military is a boys’ club,” said Madeline, a U.S. journalist who worked in Afghanistan.

Ava, a U.S. journalist who embedded in Afghanistan, saw that male soldiers often bonded with male reporters, giving her and other women journalists the “sense of being an outsider.”

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, sensed it, too. There’s a stereotype that war is “exclusively a male domain, and we (women) couldn’t possibly understand it the way they do.”

An example of the male-insider / female-outsider dynamic happened to Anna, a U.S. journalist embedded in Iraq. She once crossed a canal with U.S. troops, all of them holding their gear above their heads.

“It was hard. I did it . . . and we got across. . . . I found out later the guys said they did it to see if I could do it,” she said.

The military wasn’t the only male-dominated profession women encountered.

Olivia covered the crime beat in Florida in the United States, and her sources were primarily male law enforcement officers and firefighters. It was, she said, “a very macho culture.”

Sarah, a Canadian journalist who worked in Africa, found that sometimes when she was asking questions, sources were “answering the man standing next to me.”

Women journalists “have to show you’re tough and resilient and you can hang with the boys,” Martina observed.

In discussing their work, some women, including Elizabeth, a U.S. reporter, said they didn’t believe being a woman affected the work assignments they received. But others wanted to challenge the idea that women are “better” at covering pink topics or “soft” news stories, such as celebrity or lifestyle stories. They wanted to prove they could cover “hard” news, which would include “important” stories on politics and international affairs.

When she took a job covering the crime beat, Rose, a U.S. journalist, said she thought it would shatter some misconceptions about women’s roles.

“I hate to say this. I hate that we live in this kind of world. . . . I think women get pigeonholed into covering the ‘female’ topics, like education and health care,” she said.

At the beginning of her career, Adira, a Pakistani journalist, said she was pushed out of covering major news events, not because of her lack of professional experience, but because she was a woman. She worked hard and is now a senior correspondent.

“I wanted to break the stereotypes that women can only take up lighter social issues in journalism. For this reason, many times I requested to cover big stories along with other reporters. . . . With time, I proved myself, and I was trusted with big stories. . . . By showing my passion, commitment and will toward my work, I gained the trust of my employers. After that, I covered many stories related to politics and crime and came a long way.”

Ava said being a woman was problematic in regions where women are viewed as secondary to men.

“In Afghanistan, they did not respect women very highly, especially out in the countryside. . . . Just explaining my presence was hard enough,” she said.

She was on a three-day patrol with U.S. and Afghani soldiers when she fell behind because she had injured her knee. (The knee injury occurred earlier when a solider pulled her to the ground to protect her during a rocket attack.) One of the Afghani soldiers offered to carry her pack.

“I said, ‘I got it. I’m an American girl. We walk. We carry our own packs.’ I thought that was a great moment because I was able to say to him, ‘Girls can do anything.’”

Breaking ground as women

Some female reporters felt like outsiders when they found themselves as the only woman covering assignments. However, they were well aware they were breaking ground.

Esin, a journalist in Pakistan, was one of them. She was often in the unique position of defying gender norms to do her reporting job. She remembers standing with a group of male journalists behind police lines. She crossed the line to interview one of the criminals police captured.

“It was a rare sight for a woman (to be) covering violence,” Esin said.

Falak said when she began work as a photographer, there were no other women working in the media in her home country of Armenia.

Audra, who spent nearly two decades covering the Lord’s Resistance Army in her home country of Uganda, remembered the difficulties she had doing her job “as a woman in a male-dominated field, very young at the time and vulnerable, too—the public looking at you only as a sex object who should not wear trousers, not carry a camera, or report on war.”

She also had to deal with men who thought that they could exchange information for sex. She worked around it by calling them “my brother” or “my friend” and by carrying her own bottled water “to prevent them from taking advantage of me.”

Some women found their role as a feminine minority had the potential to limit their work.

“In my country, when I was covering anti-regime protests, there were very few female journalists,” said Jessa, a journalist working in Myanmar. “For the first four to five years, I was the only female journalist working for a foreign news organization, and I was too noticeable when covering protests, which made my work a bit difficult. The authorities often looked for me when I covered protests and drove me away from the scene.”

Martina grew up in Argentina, a country where violence against women was commonplace, and she found the same situation when she began working in Mexico. “It became clear to me that being a woman was going to work possibly against me, and I had to be very careful.”

She added: “There was never a time when I didn’t feel acutely aware of being a woman in an environment that has unfolded as being incredibly vicious to women.”

Treated differently by employers, other journalists

While women experienced sexism outside the newsroom, they also experienced sexism inside as well. Some women said they felt employers treated them differently than male colleagues—and the women did not like it.

Journalism is “very much a boys’ club. . . . there’s a lot of bravado. It’s a very macho environment,” said Martina.

“News organizations want to be forward-thinking and gender-blind (but) they will typically send the men” on assignments, Caroline, a U.S. journalist, said.

Adilah, a British journalist who covered the Middle East and Latin America, had seen and experienced this.

“Some of the harder jobs I would like to have done definitely went to the guys,” she said.

Adira said she felt her employers in Pakistan often viewed her as less capable than her male colleagues.

“It is usually thought that males are fit to cover such (violent) events as there is a danger of getting hurt, and that women can’t face such dangers,” she said. “Second, there also is a stereotype about women that they are not good investigators. So, basically, there is a lot of shoving aside of women reporters when it comes to covering such events.”

Falak said she struggled at the beginning of her career to be taken seriously by her male colleagues. When she started work as a photojournalist, her editors asked questions they would not likely have asked men. “‘Are you married? Do you have children? Will you be pregnant? Can you photograph at night? Can you be gone for a couple of days?’ Even when I’m traveling (now), people will ask, ‘How does your husband allow you to do this?’”

For Falak, the questions were insulting, but they also were great motivators. “It just makes me stronger,” she said.

Stella, a U.S. journalist who covered crime and sexual assault, saw a gender imbalance in her newsrooms, too, in the expectations about workload.

“I give it my all. I may not like what I’m doing, or feel like it’s not fair, but I would never go out and not come back with a story, but I had male colleagues who did. . . . The guys could get away with doing less while you’re out busing your ass,” she said.

Asya, a journalist who has worked in the Middle East, said being a woman “doesn’t limit me on the ground in terms of my work at all.”

She and other women didn’t believe they were less capable, less industrious, or less determined than their male colleagues. However, they recognized that their employers sometimes saw them as “less-than.”

Esin said she didn’t believe being a woman made a difference in the way she approached her job, but it did make a difference in how she was treated by her employers and by sources. Male co-workers and local police officers often warned her to be careful.

“They would not say this to a man. I would always find it quite disturbing. . . . I found that equal to calling me weak. I never liked it,” Esin said.

Rose said when she began her career, one of her older male colleagues was very vocal in his opinion that women should not cover the crime or police beat. She complained to her news organization’s human resources department. The colleague left.

Yet, employers’ sexist attitudes are alive and well today, not just a relic of the past.

Olivia, who graduated from college in 2014, said she got a lesson in sexism at her university when one of her professors advised her to use sexuality as a reporting tool.

“I had professors tell me to flirt,” she said.

Later, when she began working in newsrooms, she had male editors tell her, “You’re wearing a cute dress today. Go out . . . and knock on doors today.”

Isabelle, a U.S. journalist who covered the Middle East, said she loved journalism, just not some the macho attitudes she encountered during her work.

“When it becomes a dick-measuring contest, that distresses me.”

While many women in this series said they supported each other, some found female journalists could be less than helpful to other women.

When Audra began covering the Lord’s Resistance Army, she was one of the few female reporters, yet other women “used to despise and belittle me since I didn’t even know much English” and had not earned a college degree. She made the effort to improve her English and she got her degree while working as a journalist.

“Years later the belittling turned into admirations and praise,” Audra said.

Lillian, a U.S. journalist, said was harassed by another woman who’s “known to harass certain reporters if she doesn’t agree with what you write.”

Advantage: Woman

Women said they did not want to call attention to their sex.

“There have been a lot of times in my career when I want to say, ‘Stop pointing out that I’m a woman,” said Anna.

However, journalists in this series observed that being a woman could be an advantage in covering violence. In countries with strict gender norms, female reporters could interview or photograph women their male colleagues could not.

“I get to talk to half the population that my male colleagues don’t have access to,” said Adilah.

“It’s mostly been a huge asset,” she said. “In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many women won’t talk to men, especially western men, they’ll talk to me.”

Leah, a U.S. photographer, had similar experiences.

“It did help me in places with conservative cultures like Afghanistan to be able to access the women in ways my male colleagues could not,” she said.

“Being a journalist, you can move between both worlds,” Caroline observed.

Charlotte, a U.S. journalist, said being a woman did not affect whether she got an assignment or how she reported it. However, she acknowledged that, while writing a series of stories on domestic violence, her female sources were “maybe less comfortable talking to a man.”

Other female journalists said they, too, felt they could establish a rapport with female sources because of the shared experience—and vulnerability—of being women.

“Even though I come from a society where there’s a lot of sexism and violence against women,” said Martina, “I never considered myself a feminist, but then I started covering women’s issues, and it became clear to me—the environment I grew up, the relationships I had. I had nothing on a Honduran woman who had been trafficked, but I started to see it was part of the same (system).

“I may not be a refugee, but I think all women can tap into the collective experience of being treated like shit,” Martina said.

Martina said she has been able to forge a bond with her female sources, particularly women who survived sexual assault or domestic violence, and other female journalists said they had similar experiences.

Audra said she felt being a woman helped her, too, work more closely with female sources.

“Some news sources felt confident and trusted me with very sensitive stories, and I also protected them. I also found it easier to interview victims of rape, who often refused to speak to male journalists, but opened up to me,” she said.

Sarah said: “As a woman, especially when violent things happen, and the woman has been a survivor or victim, and another woman (reporter) comes in, that woman (source) will feel safer. . . . Going into these violent events you’re perceived differently because you’re a little bit vulnerable,” she said.

Julia, who has seen and survived gender violence, said the experiences have made her feel “more concerned by suffering caused by any kind of oppression processes.”

However, some reporters said nature, not experience, gave them more empathy than men, leading to different stories and more in-depth, nuanced reporting and photography.

“In general, I think people open up more to women,” said Lillian, a U.S. journalist. “We listen better. I know that’s very sexist.”

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, said she believes women can be sympathetic in ways men can’t.

“For women, I do think we are more compassionate. We have a greater empathy for suffering. When I see the kids and I see mothers, I know I see it in a way that the men don’t. . . . Women don’t make war, men do.”

“Sometimes, I feel because I’m a woman photographer, I have more access. . . . I’m working more deeply than male photographers,” Falak said about her documentary work.

Olivia agreed: “I think women can bring a lot to this position because we look at stories differently. We are a little more empathetic.”

And having women reporters and photographers cannot only change the way information is gathered but the content of stories.

Sofia said she believes women focus more on the welfare of civilians and children than do male journalists.

Rose said also that women may cover news differently than men.

“Rape, sex crime and sex trafficking is not something male reporters want to take on . . . ” she said.

Martina had a similar point of view.

“I love covering women’s issues, and I think I bring a (woman’s) perspective to it,” she said.

Some women said that gender norms, which position men as stoic and women as emotional, may help women in the long-run.

“The bias against men is that they have to be superman,” said Mary, a journalist in the Philippines. “They have to be tough. Women can be more open.”

Mary said she believes her rapport with sources comes, not from sex or sources’ expectations of gender roles, but from her ability to empathize and connect with the people she interviews.

“Not just because I am a woman, but because I was able to be immersed in their lives. It’s not because I am a woman but because I personally exerted effort to understand what they are going through, to reach out to this community to see what they have described to me. . . . It’s not because I’m a woman but because of the political consciousness I have gained,” Mary said.

Other journalists also questioned whether women are more empathetic—or whether sources just saw them that way. They suggested sources viewed them as maternal, and therefore, non-threatening.

Sofia said she felt when she was younger, sources were more open with her because “I looked like a young girl.” Sources took male journalists more seriously than they did her and were more guarded with them.

Ambivalent feelings

Some journalists had ambivalent feelings about whether their sex affected their work.

“The bullet would know it’s a woman?” Esin said. “The bullet could hit you as well.”

Rose said, as well, that being a woman helped and hurt her work. Sometimes sources took her less seriously than male colleagues, she said, but “I’m able to go into bad neighborhoods and people aren’t threatened by me.”

Emma, a U.S. journalist, said she thinks that being a woman “may have in one sense helped me to talk to other women. I feel I can either empathize or connect with what they’ve gone through.” However, she acknowledged that her male colleagues may be able to connect with sources as well as she does.

Adira agreed that being a woman could hurt, but help, in reporting.

“Witnesses and victims treat men and women reporters differently and give more credibility to male reporters,” she said, “though, in some cases, it becomes easier to cope with such events on the spot when there are female victims who prefer to talk to women reporters.”

Women and power

Although their experiences were varied, women interviewed for this series agreed that being a woman in journalism requires feminine compassion and feminine strength.

“Women must stay strong and fight,” said Alima, a journalist working in her home country of Afghanistan. They must not be discouraged and “they should not be quiet (if they) face any kind of problem or challenges. . . . They have to increase their knowledge and empower their profession.”

Olivia agreed.

“You have to be tough enough, courageous enough . . . to those who are in charge,” she said.

Next: Does being a woman matter -- Part 2.

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Next: Does being a woman matter—part 2.