Do Female Journalists Have a Confidence Problem?

Every couple of weeks another report comes out with a new statistic that demonstrates what we should all know by now: women writers are not being published as often as men. But we're still working at getting to the heart of the matter.

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Every couple of weeks another report comes out with a new statistic that demonstrates what we should all know by now: women writers are not being published as often as men. Except, of course, in certain areas of journalism, the "pink" ones, like service and food and style. Generally this information is met with discontent. And if women are being prevented from succeeding in such areas, it should be.

The problem is, it's more complicated than that, and maybe we're not exactly sure what the problem is—or, at least, it's not just one thing in particular. A recent look at the ASME winners, the majority of whom were men (especially in the "hard-hitting" areas of writing and reporting) led to some nuanced discussion of the issue, including a conversation between ASME head Sid Holt and Mother Jones editors Clara Jeffrey and Monika Bauerlain. Previously, VIDA compiled charts showing the breakdown of female versus male bylines at an array of national magazines; more recently, the Op-Ed Project published the results of their 3 year survey of op-ed bylines as divided by gender. It's not really a surprise that in both cases men continue to dominate the bylines, though the OpEd Project's report does cite improvement, particularly in new media, in the last six years since The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz and the L.A. Times' James Rainey looked at byline equity in 2005.

The thing is, though, knowing these stats is only half the battle. Which is why, if we hope to promote gender equality (and, really, the better word for this is fairness, a baseline that ignores gender and instead focuses on the quality of what's being produced) in bylines and writing and throughout the rest of society in general, we have to talk about not only what is but also why. So along with blog posts and articles on the matter, there are panels. A recent one of these, “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” was held by an organization called Her Girl Friday, and brought together editors and journalists, most of them women, to talk about what exactly the problem is. Interestingly, they all seemed to agree that it's not purely based in sexism or gender bias. So what is it? "Fear of rejection" and "lack of confidence." How "womanly."

New York Times reporter Amy O'Leary, host of the panel, told the audience that male reporters, at least those she worked with when she was just starting out, simply weren't as paralyzed by the fear of rejection that plagued her—Jillian Keenan writes at Poynter that O'Leary said "her male counterparts would happily send off pitches they had written in a day." The one guy on the panel, Evan Ratliff of Atavist, added that male journalists tend to be innately entitled, which means they're tenacious, and don't give up pitching even when rejected; in contrast, he said, female journalists get a no from an editor and then are never heard from again. The OpEd Project's Katherine Lanpher also said that the byline imbalance is less about editorial bias and more about female journalists who "simply do not feel emboldened to express their opinions to the same degree as men."

As with much general advice targeted to females (and surely there are guy journalists who are crushed by rejections, too?), the rest of the conversation went over pitch guidelines good for any gender, like knowing your publication, spelling names correctly, and, basically, knowing how to pitch the right way—stories, not broad topics, was the consensus. All helpful advice, for anyone.

But let's get back to that confidence thing. If female journalists do indeed lack confidence compared to male ones (and this seems a point supported by anecdotal evidence rather than true facts), aren't we just blaming female journalists yet again for being...stereotypically female? The weaker sex, less tenacious, less strong, less able to persevere? These are problems women need to get over; they should act more like men to succeed, seems to be the message. But clearly there are plenty of female journalists who have succeeded and continue to do so. Was lack of confidence truly the one thing that they had to get over? And is being confident really where all these guys succeed and women fail? This feels oversimplified at best.

Personally, I think that female journalists are as diverse as male journalists, and some may suffer crises of confidence, particularly early on in their careers, particularly when they hit lulls and low patches, but this is not a problem exclusive to women. All of us are sometimes insecure, all of us hate to be told no—but the good ones get over it and keep going. If we're going to argue that insecurity is more of a female problem than a male one, let's not stop there but talk about why: Social constructs, the history of male-dominated journalism, the types of writing that men and women have traditionally done and the contacts they have, and so on. It's more complicated than just spinning this back to women and telling them to suck it up. At the same time, women (and men) who want to be good at whatever they do should acknowledge the advice. If fear is what's keeping you back, well, you should probably get over that.

But, let's also return to the good news the OpEd Project points out, the improvement, especially in new media. With the Internet and particularly blogs, where the churn cycle is such that you can never be afraid to pitch—you must over and over again, every day, every hour sometimes, be pitching—we may be ushering in a new time of byline equality where the best truly do rise to the top and are rewarded for it, regardless of gender, because there is no other option; this is an ever more crucial ingredient to success. So maybe the Internet is a great equalizer; if nothing else, it leaves very little time for self-doubt. And, for certain, having a confidence problem on the Internet, whether a writer is male or female, is one very sure way to not get a byline.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.