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Home > Publications > Quill > Getting Women Into the Game



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Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Getting Women Into the Game

Is there still a glass ceiling to break when it comes to sports journalism?

By Ashley Milne-Tyte

Editor’s Note: The genesis for this story comes from a shocking lack of women in sports journalism roles. That’s sadly well known. It became clearer to me, personally, in the fall when reading coverage of the Seattle Seahawks, particularly some online posts that aggregated coverage of the team. One such post listed 27 articles/columns about a recent win by the team – from local news outlets to niche sports websites to Sports Illustrated to the NFL’s own football writers. All of them from men. A similar roundup several weeks later from the same outlet included 25 men and only one woman. Anecdotal, maybe, but still striking and concerning. I wondered: Where the heck are all the women in these roles? Surely they must be there, right? I’m at most a casual sports fan, particularly of the NFL, and realized that, outside of TV sideline reporters, I couldn’t name one prominent female sports journalist other than Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post (who has been profiled in Quill’s “Ten” feature). Is it a pipeline problem? Are women really not interested in going into this field? Is the field inhospitable now, in 2015? Is this one of the last glass ceilings for women in journalism to break through?

I initially typed a potential headline for this story: “Are You Ready For Some Women,” playing off the former Monday Night Football theme song from Hank Williams Jr. A few people in the office rightly noted that, while they understood the reference, it could come off tacky or offensive. We changed the headline. But the sentiment remained: Heck yes we’re ready for more women in sports journalism. And we need more men in hiring positions to go out and find the candidates who are waiting to do the job.

– Scott Leadingham, Quill editor

When Rachel Whittaker graduated from Louisiana State University in 2011, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She’d been a sports fan her whole life, and a sportswriter on the student newspaper.

She quickly applied to two local publications, including the small American Press in Lake Charles, La. Circulation: 30,000. Female sports reporters: Zero.

“Proportionally, there are fewer women in sports journalism than there are in the U.S. military.” - Marie Hardin, Penn State University

Whittaker got the job.

It was her entry into the competitive world of sports journalism. The paper may not have had a woman on the sports staff before, but everyone welcomed her as one of the team. She helped the paper increase its video and multimedia presence while covering high school sports.

A year later, she got an opportunity at her hometown paper and took it. She now covers college and professional sports for NOLA.com, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

She’s still in a minority, though a larger one: There are four women to about 10 men on the sports desk. She loves her job, but not everything has gone smoothly. When she first started hosting daily video shows for NOLA.com, nasty comments began to pile up, e.g. she was “just a pretty face.” Viewers scoffed at the idea that she knew her stuff just as well as a male reporter. It hurt.

“I’m not a naturally thick-skinned person,” she said.

But her skin has toughened, and the negative comments have dwindled as readers and viewers have come to respect her. She sees the added scrutiny she receives as a good thing.

“If women mess up a statistic or misspell someone’s name, it’s judged even more. It’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time it’s exciting to know I have that responsibility to always be right.”

Whittaker hopes for a long career in sports journalism, but the statistics are stark. The latest Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card, which looked at 150 newspapers and websites, came out in 2013. The research revealed that 90 percent of sports editors were male, and most were white; 88 percent of sports reporters were men; 90 percent of sports columnists were men. And ESPN has hired many women over the years, which skewed the statistics. Without ESPN in the mix, the numbers would be even worse.

“You have to give (female candidates) the chance to prove themselves. I reached out to the candidates to ask them to apply. You really have to work at it.” – Don Shelton, Seattle Times sports editor

At a time when Title IX is 40 years old, more and more women are playing sports, and almost half of NFL fans are women, the question is: Why are so few women in sports journalism?

HIRING DECISIONS

Mike Sherman is president of the Associated Press Sports Editors and sports editor at The Oklahoman.

“It’s a bunch of complicating factors that add up to the same thing,” he said.

Sherman currently has one woman sports writer on his staff, columnist Jenni Carlson. He says editors have to keep thinking about the pipeline, which often begins with local young people covering high school sports.

[Note: The above paragraph has been corrected to clarify the number of women on Sherman's sports staff. A previous version noted he was "surrounded by women" on staff, but that referred to the entire Oklahoman staff, not the sports desk.]

“A lot of the local people who come to us, the vast majority of them happen to be male,” he said. “The key is to go out and prospect.”

Don Shelton at The Seattle Times agrees. He’s been a sports editor for 30 years and has seen hundreds of résumés cross his desk, far fewer from women than from men. He says it’s incumbent upon editors to find female candidates.

“They may not be quite as ready for the job,” he said. “You may have to look at smaller newspapers. You have to give them the chance to prove themselves.”

He hired three of his current five female staff members during the past year.

“I reached out to the candidates to ask them to apply — I advertised on minority websites, the AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media) website. You really have to work at it.”

Out of a sports staff of 35 at The Seattle Times, five are women, and Shelton admits there’s more work to do.

Sherman said part of that work includes getting buy-in from the top.

“The corner office has to say, ‘This is important.’ If there are a dozen things that are important, sometimes nothing is important.”

Sally Jenkins is a veteran sports columnist with The Washington Post. She does not believe “inhospitable men” are the reason the number of female sports writers remains so small.

“My editors on The Washington Post have been highly cognizant of it and tried like hell to hire talented young women,” she said. “They’ve been turned down in some cases by women who preferred some other form of media” such as television.

But TV has its own hiring wrinkles. Women’s professional sports is not as well-funded or as well-covered as men’s sports. That means there’s less chance of a female sports star graduating to the media once she retires.

“There’s just not that funnel into sports media through having played the sport,” Jenkins said. She cites former national soccer player Julie Foudy, now a writer and on-air personality at ESPN, as “one of the few instances” of female athletes who made the leap that so many male athletes make from player to journalist and commentator/analyst.

INDUSTRY CHANGES

Kathy Kudravi is chairwoman of the executive committee at the Association for Women in Sports Media and a longtime sports editor. She says the organization is seeing a surge in membership among women who are still in college, which she sees as a positive sign for the future of sports journalism. On the other hand, the shrinking of the newspaper industry has been a blow to the sports desk. There are simply fewer sports writers and editors than there used to be.

“The people who tend to get laid off are last in, first out, and that tends to be women and minorities,” she said. “Publications tend to keep people who are similar (to the editors).”

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Jane McManus, a sports writer and columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNW, also believes unconscious bias is at play in some newsrooms.

“I do see editors hire people they can identify with: ‘He reminds me of me, I want to have a beer with that guy,’” McManus said. It’s probably less easy for male sports editors to see themselves downing a beer with a woman, she said.

McManus says things are tougher for women in the business. She knows a young sports reporter who lost her job recently after leaving a newspaper gig to go to TV. That job then fell through at the last minute. Now the reporter, who McManus describes as “really impressive,” is struggling to get hired.

This is not how McManus imagined the world when she graduated from journalism school in 1997 and began her career.

“I really did think I was coming into a business where women would be flooding the zone at some point.”

What she’s seen instead is the same steady trickle.

THE LIFESTYLE

Marie Hardin of Penn State University has spent years studying male and female roles in sports journalism. Now dean of the college of communications at the university, Hardin says there are reasons to be optimistic — and pessimistic. For one thing, the university’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism is now 35 percent female. When it opened in 2003, the student body was overwhelmingly male.

“We are seeing more young women who are interested and willing to consider and pursue careers covering sports,” she said. “But when the rubber hits road, there’s more of a revolving door for them.”

Hardin says she and her team of researchers have noticed the same thing time and again: The number of women in the industry falls off at the five-year mark. And this is where sports journalism begins to sound like any other challenging job.

“Women see the reality of career success versus family life,” Hardin said. This, combined with what is often a bumpy route up the career ladder, stops many women in their tracks.

Covering sports, especially a league like the NFL or the NBA, does not involve friendly hours. Just as the fans are heading home or going to a bar to celebrate or commiserate, the journalist’s job is beginning.

“I think women were instrumental in holding NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accountable” in the Ray and Janay Rice domestic violence incident. “One of the reasons (the NFL is) so behind on issues like domestic violence is that they’ve never been forced to look at it.” - Sally Jenkins, Washington Post sports columnist

Mary Byrne is managing editor of USA Today Sports, and this summer she will take over as president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. She says that more than ever, sports reporters operate in a 24/7 environment and must be prepared to cancel vacations and walk out in the middle of dinner to cover a story.

“Not everyone had the same love for Tuesday and Wednesday days off as I did,” she said. “There is very much a paying of dues. It wears on people after a period of time.”

Hardin and Jenkins point out that we like to think things have evolved with regard to the division of labor in family life. But traditional expectations about which sex will do what still have a grip on most heterosexual couples.

Jenkins says if you’re covering a major league, “You’re on the road so much it makes it hard to have a family. No matter how different modern marriages are, I just think it’s more difficult for women.”

Mary Byrne says this clash between work and home is an issue for men in the industry too, but she’s optimistic about both men's and women's ability to do their jobs and be present parents. Her former female coworkers at the Miami Herald had families and managed to carry out top sports reporter jobs at the same time.

“It’s incumbent upon managers like myself to be creative, to keep people in the newsroom, to allow them to have a family and do those things,” she said.

ON THE JOB

If you’re wondering whether women have to be hard-boiled to do this job, the short answer is yes.

Sally Jenkins is the daughter of legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins. When she started out in the ‘80s, no one gave her any trouble because of being female — possibly, she says, because her dad was so well known. Jenkins and Kudravi have both had mostly positive experiences with colleagues, including male editors; though Jenkins says Sports Illustrated, where she worked for seven years, was not a good environment for women. Both faced some early resistance in locker rooms, but it faded quickly.

McManus says women need a certain type of personality to thrive in the job. As well as developing a thick skin to withstand Internet trolls and the barbs that come flying at you from fans, you have to be OK with being “a social outsider,” someone who will never blend in with the group because the group consists largely of guys.

There have been several well-reported instances of sexual harassment of female TV sports reporters in the past 15 years, including Joe Namath’s unfortunate and inebriated announcement that he wanted to kiss his interviewer, ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. Women still have to cope with that unwelcome attention, especially if they’re reporting from the sidelines at games. Most reporters shrug off these incidents and move on.

McManus and some female colleagues went on a trip to Texas Christian University a couple of years ago to talk about sports writing. She was struck when she realized the audience of journalism students was full of women. But during the question period it became clear that a lot of these young women wanted to become sideline reporters for TV, which she describes as something that has become “a glamor job” that’s a far cry from the grind of regular reporting.

She also draws a distinction between being an on-the-ground reporter and someone who hosts from behind the camera. Many stations now want a woman hosting some of their sports coverage.

“It’s very acceptable, as the host, to be unthreatening,” she said. “To be screaming questions (at players and coaches) is a bit more bold. And as women we’re not taught to be that bold when we’re growing up.”

McManus says TV producers like their female anchors unchallenging and not too loud. They don’t want a host who will upset ideas of feminine behavior (something she emphasizes reporters must do all the time if they’re going to do a good job). Oh, and it’s advisable to be under 30, so you can appeal to the guys on the couch at home.

She has seen a lot of women in their 30s and 40s face trouble landing a job in TV. Just as their expertise is deepening, the interest in hiring them fades. With men, expertise and wrinkles can happily co-exist on screen.

“A hiring call can be your hair color,” she said of women. “A producer wants someone who looks a certain way.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Hardin says when you think about a male-dominated institution, the military probably comes to mind. Yet it’s doing a comparatively good job of hiring and retaining women.

“Proportionally, there are fewer women in sports journalism than there are in the U.S. military,” she said.

Having more women in sports journalism matters.

Jenkins says it isn’t important simply because the fan base of the major leagues is close to 50 percent female. It’s that women are different from men. They see things differently, they hear things differently — different things strike them as important. Having more women reporting on sports means the audience gets a fuller picture of what’s going on.

“I think women were instrumental in holding NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accountable” in the Ray and Janay Rice domestic violence incident, she said. “One of the reasons they’re so behind on issues like domestic violence is that they’ve never been forced to look at it.”

But women like Jenkins, McManus and others are pushing to ensure that they do.

“Otherwise you end up with a bunch of older guys making the decisions. And I’m an old white guy. I just don’t want to have a staff full of them.” – Don Shelton, Seattle Times sports editor

McManus describes ESPNW, which focuses on women’s sports, as having plenty of women in key leadership positions, including the investigative unit. She had been researching and writing about domestic violence long before the Ray Rice scandal erupted, so when that story broke she was ready to take a deep dive. ESPNW is, she said, “definitely a different environment” and an empowering one for women.

Byrne says she’s not usually seen as an optimist, but she is hopeful about the future of sports journalism and women’s part in it. She meets a lot of students of both sexes who she says are excited about all the possibilities for the industry.

“It’s about keeping them in the field, and I do think it’s about technology and how much the industry is changing," Byrne said. "For a generation that is so digitally native, it’s a great opportunity for shaping what journalism looks like and how we do news for the next 25 to 50 years.”

For men like Don Shelton of The Seattle Times, getting more women on staff is a question of bringing multiple voices to his coverage. You need more than one type of person to cover sports, he says, just as you do any other topic. Shelton wants not only more women on the sports desk but a mix of people of different races, ages and sexual orientations.

“Otherwise you end up with a bunch of older guys making the decisions,” he said. “And I’m an old white guy. I just don’t want to have a staff full of them.”

Feedback about this story? Letter to the editor?

Email Quill here

Ashley Milne-Tyte is a public radio reporter, Columbia Journalism School instructor and host of "The Broad Experience" podcast about women in the workplace. On Twitter: @ashleymilnetyte

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