Qualifications in the Newsroom

When I first arrived in the Bay Area, I picked up Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s probably the most cliche thing I could’ve done. It’s not like it wasn’t available in Memphis, but I knew that coming here, I had something to learn. (I still do, always.) I wanted to read about what a woman on the inside of a tech company would be able to offer as advice, suspecting that I’d probably end up at one due to their sheer saturation.

Since reading that book, one statistic — quoted not only by Sandberg but others talking about the “confidence gap” in women — stays in the back of my mind. The statistic comes from a Hewlett-Packard internal report, summarized succinctly in the Harvard Business Review by Tara Sophia Mohr in 2014: “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.”

This statistic has been debated, rebuked, discussed — pick the verb of your choice — for years, but there has to be reasons. Mohr surveyed over a thousand people to find out why they didn’t apply for certain job, providing wonderful insight for those of us interested in this topic. However, there is one comparison from that Harvard Business Review article that I want to focus on for a moment. Of those surveyed, 12 percent of men did not apply for a particular job because they didn’t think they would get hired; they didn’t meet the qualifications, and because of that, they didn’t want to put themselves out there to fail. Of women, same reason, 21 percent.

In this case, 21 percent may not seem like a lot, but if we’re generalizing, that’s one in five women. Putting yourself out there in general is something to be commended, regardless of your gender. But why are far less men, nearly 10 percent less on this survey, not worried about failing in the eye of the job search? There are far more folks in psychology and human behavior to answer that question, and I am not one of those people — but I see this percentage in myself, especially when it came to applying for journalism jobs.

Maybe there’s a new hope. Last year, Poynter ran an article about women in journalism school versus newsrooms. The article goes into the myriad of reasons why women are disappearing from organizations, ranging from sexism to lack of structural support, while journalism schools are flurried with female students. However, according to the piece, nearly 50 percent of employees at online-only publications were women, compared to 38 percent in print-only newsrooms. Surely, there cannot be 12 percent more qualified women in digital publications than qualified in print.

The digital platform, providing a much-needed shot in the arm to journalism in general, may provide another antidote to the hierarchical structures at traditional journalism organizations.

When employees are far more lateral in digitally focused companies, there’s more work to be done — and shared. Often, the time to beat is the one of the printing press at digital organizations. There’s more stories to be told and no inches to count. If you can break relevant news quickly and beautifully, there are far less hoops to jump through to get a story written. And a question must be asked: when it comes to organizations adopting a more horizontal style of management, does age come into play in embracing it? Jonah Peretti was 32 when he co-founded Buzzfeed. Nick Denton founded Blogwire, later turning into Gawker Media, at 36. When Vice began focusing on digital media aggressively in 2007, CEO Shane Smith was 36.

Is it coincidental that these companies with younger, diverse management — or companies that listen to younger, diverse employees — experiment more, include more, and progress more? I hope that when I grow old, I find myself listening to the generation before me to progress — perhaps we should ask our companies to do so as well. No longer should you hear “that’s the way it’s always been done” as the industry cannot survive that way, so why should we excuse it in our applications, hiring processes, and employee benefits?

If you know you can do the job, apply. If you have something to prove, prove it. If your proven capability is hung up on a year’s less experience, wonder if you want to work there anyway.

There’s always more to this issue, as this one — much like many, many others — is multi-faceted. In hopes to entice your thoughts about gender roles in our newsrooms and resumes, I’ll leave you with this delightful quote describing how journalism feels from writer Margaret Bateson in her book, Professional Women Upon Their Professions, published in 1895:

Mental and physical wear and tear, drudgery, sometimes anxiety, there are, I quite admit; but people cannot expect to be paid for nothing. But along with the exertion comes such a quickening of the pulses, such an awakening of the brain, such a sense of being carried along upon the rushing torrent of human life as make me oftentimes disposed to marvel that payment should be offered for accepting a gift that is without price. This last too candid admission is not, however, I beg leave to say, intended to be observed by editors.

Questions to Ask

  1. Have you ever looked at a job’s qualifications and felt like it was just out of reach? Did you still apply? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think, when it comes to job-hunting, women are more afraid to fail? What societal pressures do you think are put on women either internally or externally to succeed at their careers?
  3. How can the journalism industry encourage more women to apply for reporter positions? Management positions?

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