In honor of Women’s History Month, Shattering the Ceiling is going to be profiling a series of women who we believe are making women’s history now. These are the women who we want our daughters, sisters, nieces (and selves) knowing about and being inspired by. And we imagine that when future generations are celebrating Women’s History, these are some of the women they’ll be honoring.
In today’s Making Women’s History Now interview, I discuss the under-representation of women’s voices and stories in journalism with Xanthe Scharff Ackerman, the Executive Director of The Fuller Project.
As the Executive Director, Xanthe works to grow and cultivate the organization and to help see its goals of increasing the amount of quality journalism written about the issues that affect women’s lives both internationally and domestically. In addition, she herself writes. We were able to find time to chat about this work, and how she found her way to fighting for women’s journalism being recognized as vital journalism.
There are two aspects of women’s journalism that Fuller promotes; two aspects of gender that it is addressing – who is telling the stories and who the stories are about. Can you talk a bit about why you think each of those sectors are important?
There is still significant bias in newsrooms and this affects the news that is produced. At major newspapers, women get less than 40 percent of bylines, author a fourth of OpEds, and are too infrequently sought out as commentators. We know that men are quoted three times as often on the front cover of the New York Times as women, but importantly, that the gender bias is less when the reporter is a woman.
This bias affects the way that news is reported. We aren’t getting enough reporting on the issues that most affect women. And, unfortunately, too often news about women is grouped with lifestyle reporting or is segmented out of mainstream news in other ways. At the same time, in traditional media when women do appear they are often portrayed as victims, not as the agents acting, even quietly, to improve their communities. But we know that is what women are doing across all segments of society. Through The Fuller Project, we work to amplify those stories that present women and their perspectives in a more comprehensive, realized manner, giving them due attention for their leading roles in society. We know that “women’s news” is real news and that it affects everyone.
It is central to our mission to bring our reporting to as broad an audience as possible, and that in the process of working with partner outlets, we shift the way newsrooms think about reporting on women. And we’ve been gratified to find that there is a real appetite for the journalism we’re doing.
At Fuller, it seems to be there is a real emphasis on having women reporters writing these stories. In what ways do you think reporting done by women differs from the reporting done by men when it’s about the same topic?
Take someplace with conservative social mores that dictate that men and women occupy different social spheres. In the Middle East, for example, a woman reporter will have greater access to women and women-only spaces and to have conversations that a male reporter wouldn’t be able to have as easily.
For instance, from Turkey we reported a three-part series on Syrian girls struggling to get an education. It was challenging to find the subjects of those three reports, which were published in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and Syria Deeply, because many of the families told us they were protecting the girls’ reputation in hopes finding a husband for her. Gaining trust from the families was critical. It helped that we were a crew of three women, with Arabic fluency.
Of course, there are talented male journalists doing important reporting on issues that affect women as well. We do find, however, that almost all the reporters that pitch us are women.
I want to get back to a comment you made earlier about the “appetite” you are finding for these stories by women about women. I’m not surprised that the stories are being welcomed. But in light of what I imagine is a good deal of demand for these sorts of stories, why aren’t newsrooms doing the work more organically? Why does it take the Fuller Project to nudge them along?
International bureaus have seen major budget cuts in recent decades, and many editors turn to a freelance network to fill the gap in global coverage. Those editors have let us know how interested they are in receiving our multi-media reports as they seek quality submissions from around the world. In the US, editors know that this is a pivotal moment for women. Not only did the election demonstrate that women in America are not understood, it highlighted the divisions in our country that affect not only politics, but also the consumption of news.
In both our US and international reporting, we aim to report fact-driven, independent news that is compelling enough to reach a broad and diverse audience of women and men across political divides. Our approach is also different from the way that issues affecting women are covered in many news organizations. We are a team of seasoned, award-winning journalists and gender experts who take on issues affecting women as our beat. So while a daily newspaper may assign a health care reporter to cover changes in Obamacare, our reporter would tap health care experts but also cover that issue with a lens on women, how changes to that policy affect them, and what intersections there are with the other issues we are tracking, like poverty and reproductive health.
Is there any data that would support pushing news about women in some sort of lady pages? Do men really not read this stuff?
Segmenting in mainstream news media is something that definitely exists, but I think it does a disservice to readers. I’d be wary of any data that outlets are collecting on their readership if it leads them to segment their news. And it’s important to note that readership is influenced by the ways in which those stories are reported and packaged. When stories more often cite male experts and focus on stories about men, that can limit the buy-in and enthusiasm from female readers. How we connect with our readers matters. The literary world is further ahead on this point as many authors realize how much of that market is made up of women readers.
How did you decide to focus on international women’s reporting?
I worked in the nonprofit space for over a decade, promoting access to education for girls in Africa and thinking about the roadblocks they face (e.g. unwanted advances, being told they are not smart enough, etc). In Turkey, I started writing about those same issues as well as about Syrian women. While there, I met Fuller Project Founder and long-time journalist Christina Asquith.
Christina and I quickly became friends, and we started talking about her vision for this organization. She had been brewing the idea for over a decade, essentially assigning herself to work on women’s issues as she reported from the Iraq war. Even as she had faced criticism for writing about “pink issues,” she kept at it.
Christina started questioning how different the war in Iraq might have been if, collectively, we had listened to the stories of women there. And I think that is such a powerful question. I quickly realized how much of a void there is and how much of an impact we could make by growing this organization. So I joined up with her, and we have been working together ever since to grow The Fuller Project both internationally and here in the US. And we feel even more urgency since the US election.
I want to go back for a moment to your mention that Christina was criticized for writing about “pink issues.” Is that a common term in the journalism world? Is there hostility to writing about women’s issues?
In some people’s minds, there is a hierarchy. At the top are politics, conflict, economy with social issues, including issues affecting women considered by some to be less worthwhile or perhaps less exciting.
I myself have been told I would be doing myself a disservice if I wrote only about women – that I should brand myself as a writer first. This idea stems from an underestimation of women’s role in shaping world events. Unfortunately, our front pages reflect this underestimation. Our work is to demonstrate that issues affecting women and women leaders deserve and demand more and better coverage, and that these issues affect everyone.
Have there been any surprises for you in doing this work?
I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by collaboration within the media space. I’m seeing a lot of informal cross-posting and a willingness to enter into more formal partnerships to get good media out to readers, viewers, listeners. It’s really nice seeing people thinking outside the box together, focusing on quality content and generally being less territorial than I expected.
I’ve been somewhat surprised by a general sit back and wait approach after the elections. A number of institutions and individuals have expressed to me their desire to wait before committing resources on the issues they think are under threat. While strategy is always important, and we are in a rapidly changing environment, I also think it’s important to be able to act with alacrity on issues affecting women – the government certainly is.
Have you faced any challenges in your work, either here in the U.S. or when working overseas, that you think were either because you are a woman or were exacerbated because of your gender?
Overseas, I have more often felt like a third gender, excluded from gender norms at work. I always felt welcomed and appreciated in Africa. And in Turkey, while I certainly had some sexist or patronizing interactions, it didn’t rise to the level of getting in the way of my work. I also have been very sheltered in the U.S. I have worked in organizations that were staffed and led by a majority of women and where I enjoyed very supportive relationships with bosses and mentors.
However, I was surprised to learn that in my field of nonprofit management, women earn on average about 25 percent less in Executive Director roles than men. This is a progressive space and one where women hold many leadership positions, yet the discrimination is evident here, too. If I had set my compensation expectations by looking at the pay of other women I knew, I would have been disadvantaging myself. This reinforced for me the idea that one person’s personal experience does not provide a wide-enough lens to understand discrimination against women.
You weren’t originally a reporter. You have your PhD and previously spent your time on work surrounding girls’ education in Africa. Did taking on the role of Executive Director feel like a big shift for you? How did you decide to make the move?
I’d been the executive director of AGE Africa and subsequently was the deputy of a large center at Brookings, so the role of executive director is very much in line with my experience. I did make a career shift in getting into journalism. After a decade of working in Africa and in research, it’s been a welcome intellectual challenge, and it feels like a critical time for our work. One of the things I love about writing is how humbling it is to report a story, and also the infinite number of things you learn in the process.
You’re also a single mom of two young children. Do you have any tips for how to go about the impossible task of balancing all the different hats you must wear?
I think about family and friends as the bedrock that makes everything else possible in my life. My work gives me a sense of purpose that is often a compass. That compass has pulled me through hard times – like divorce.
But I’m also incredibly lucky. The Fuller Project has number of mothers in leadership roles. We all recognize the need for both work and personal life to be in balance, and if someone runs out to a parent-teacher conference, we know that their work will still get done well. But we are really lucky compared to many women and men in America and elsewhere, on Women’s Day and every day, we know the fight is real for policies that allow people to both nurture their families and have fulfilled careers.