Journalism's #MeToo moment: A guide for media organisations on tackling sexism and misogyny at the workplace

The World Association of News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) annual Congress in early June is one of the media world’s major industry events — a networking opportunity for close to a thousand attendees from international news publishing, with keynote speakers and panel discussions addressing the future of journalism and the news business in a time of convergent crises. It should be the pinnacle of good practice, shaping the path for industry progression.

But the 2018 World News Congress was a study in contrasts, one indicative of the news industry’s treatment of women: symbolic (and at times substantial) gestures of respect interspersed with real, sometimes shocking sexual discrimination and harassment.

 Journalisms #MeToo moment: A guide for media organisations on tackling sexism and misogyny at the workplace

Representational image. Reuters

Women in news: Moving from the sidebar to the front page

The event began with the second annual Women in News Summit featuring the BBC, The New York Times, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of That’s What She Said Joanne Lipman, former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group Raju Narisetti, and many others committed to championing diversity within their news organisations. Their impressive stories and good practices alone made the trip to Portugal worthwhile.

However, the Summit was relegated to pre-conference programming — like an asterisk to the main event. And while the Congress curation achieved unprecedented levels of gender balance (46 percent of speakers were women), the opening ceremony saw a veritable wall of men — we lost count at nine — speak for 90 minutes before the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom was eventually awarded to Maria Ressa. The award bestowed on Ressa, CEO and editor-in-chief of, recognised her sustained battle against the gendered, state-sponsored harassment of journalists in the Philippines. It was an important and deeply symbolic decision to select Ressa. But by the time she was allowed to speak, several delegates had left the venue in disgust with the total absence of diversity on stage.

Over the next three days, the event careened between spotlighting gender equality with awards and speeches, and disrespecting women in practice.

Fake breasts and forced kisses

Talking about diversity is not enough to effect change. But, ironically, scandal sometimes is. The rampant displays of sexism and sexual harassment during the gala conference dinner at the Estoril Casino (the venue that inspired Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) left so many participants and WAN-IFRA employees shaken that they ultimately triggered significant action.

The evening began with a joke from the MC comparing fake news with breasts. The punchline: in both cases he prefers the fakes.

Then came the editorial leadership awards given to outstanding female editors from Uganda and Jordan. One (important) goal for women in news.

And finally, a closer so awful that many of us present (including WAN-IFRA employees we’ve spoken with) were in shock. At the end of the dinner, João Palmeiro, the head of the Portuguese press association, persuaded a group of women who organised the conference to join him on stage, before asking one of them to tie tablecloths around the necks of the others, saying he was giving them wings: “They are my angels and I don’t know if I am prepared to share them with you.” Palmeiro (a former WAN-IFRA Board member) continued, calling himself ‘Charlie’ and declaring: “In the name of all of you, I am going to kiss Christin!” WAN-IFRA’s senior project manager Christin Herger was one of a number of employees on stage. You can watch the cringe-inducing video here.

The audience applauded. And gasped. Herger visibly bristled and withdrew from Palmeiro’s forced kiss, but he was undeterred. “She’s shy, please, please, and I hope you, Portuguese girl, are not so shy,” he said before grabbing the Portuguese WAN-IFRA employee Maria Belem and kissing her instead, despite her obvious discomfort. As he exited the stage, Palmeiro thanked the line-up of women and called them his “dream team,” making much of the fact they were all women. Ironically, a new WAN-IFRA handbook on combating sexual harassment in the media was launched during the conference.

Maria Belem, one of the women on whom Palmeiro had imposed himself, posted this message on the official conference app after the event: “We are not angels, and we do not work for Charlie. We are professionals working for press freedom and towards a healthy media ecosystem.”

When “platforming” sexual harassment triggers change

Here’s the good news: despite the (at times) overt sexism and sexual harassment on display during the World News Congress, the events appeared to trigger a chain reaction that has deepened WAN-IFRA’s commitment to reforms and delivered a chance for much-needed reflection within the industry as a whole.

When social media users called out the misogyny in Estoril, it became a #metoo moment for journalism events. In response to expressions of outrage — both on and offline — WAN-IFRA publicly apologised, openly reflected on the incidents, issued a statement of condemnation via the World Editors Forum, and announced the promotion of women on its board.

Michael Golden, the chair of WAN-IFRA’s board and former vice chairman of The New York Times, appeared on stage the morning after the gala dinner to address the crisis:

“Last night what happened on the stage…with João Palmeiro calling up the staff was inappropriate. He imposed himself on our staff — on Christin Herger, on Maria Belem — in a way that made them uncomfortable and that made many people uncomfortable. I am here to say that that was not appropriate. I am here to apologise to our staff for what happened last night and to say that we recognise the extraordinary work they have done and that they did not deserve to be put in that situation.”

Palmeiro stepped up to the stage next, saying sorry “from the bottom of my heart.” But that apology seems hollow when viewed in the context of an interview he gave later that day to journalist Yusuf Omar. Echoing sentiments that had been hinted at by WAN-IFRA executives, Palmeiro blamed his behaviour on Portuguese culture, claiming that such conduct was “absolutely OK” and “normal” in Portugal.

That was not a view shared by Portuguese women, including those on the stage. “I felt humiliated as a professional, as a woman, and as a Portuguese person. It was not cultural,” one told us.

In the aftermath, WAN-IFRA drew attention to the new appointment of South African editor Lisa MacLeod as the vice president of its board (which represents many of the world’s biggest news brands) – the first woman in the organisation’s 70-year history to hold the position. The day before the gala dinner, two new women were voted onto the board and four promoted to the board’s executive committee. Though this is progress, WAN-IFRA remains heavily male-dominated, with women still comprising just 14 percent of board members. (The World Editors Forum board has achieved 35 percent female representation.) Indeed, WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyregne acknowledged this by saying, “We have a lot more to achieve in the coming months.”

#TimesUp for newsrooms, publishers and event organisers worldwide

The Palmeiro incident didn’t happen in isolation. It followed a sexist trajectory deeply rooted in stigmas that marginalise women across all news organisations (and throughout society). Though many can point proudly to diversity goals displayed on corporate websites, and the injection of influential female voices into content and conference programs, women in the media continue to be under-represented in bylines, behind editors’ desks, and in board rooms. They’re also often paid less than their male counterparts.

Our industry has a responsibility to lead on gender equality in, and through, the media. Boader social change depends upon it.

And we, members of the international journalism community, are not prepared to sit through another “manel,” support organisations that disingenuously claim credit for gender equality initiatives, or stay silent when female colleagues are sexually harassed before our eyes.

We are done pandering to the egos of change-resistant influential men in the hope that our gentle lead will eventually encourage them to join us on a meander toward gender equality in the news business. Time is well and truly up.

14 principles of gender equality for the news industry

Here are 14 principles and recommendations for the global news publishing community to use when auditing their efforts on gender equality, and on diversity more broadly. Some of them were inspired by WAN-IFRA’s pioneering Women In News Summit.

1. Insist on gender equality in and through the media

Globally, women represent well under 30 percent of leadership positions in newsrooms, making the narrative of most publications skewed to the male perspective. Recent studies also show that mainstream newspaper journalists and commentators are dominated by men talking about what other men are doing. This imbalance is directly reflected in content, and in curation of panels and moderators at events throughout the news industry. It’s 2018 — push back and make sure you/your organisation are not contributing to the problem. Bloomberg Newsrecipe for embedding gender equality is a useful guide, as is this initiative from the Financial Times.

2. Use data to drive inclusive representation on panels, in leadership, and on stage

“If you can’t count it, you can’t change it.” This great point from Joanne Lipman is an important starting place. Most organisations feel that gender inequality is not their problem. But taking the time to map and measure is the only way to be sure. Track the gender of bylined authors, sources, speakers, and editors to see how balanced your teams and content really are. Simply counting can lead to change. (Read about/listen to Lipman’s approach to leveraging data in the cause. Check out the BBC’s 50:50 gender balance challenge created by Ros Atkins, and see the toolkit produced by Gender Avenger) Consider sharing these metrics so you can be held accountable, in a spirit of transparency that should also help build trust in your organisation.

3. Call out sexual harassment and tackle it head on (on and offline)

“I deeply believe we need an overall code of conduct for men to learn how not to treat women in professional settings. There is a lot to learn,” Mariana Santos, founder of ChicasPoderosas has said. News organisations need detailed policies that deal decisively with harassment both on and offline. See Press Forward’s resources and read Julie Posetti’s 11-step guide to managing online harassment in newsrooms.

4. Don’t ghettoise gender equality initiatives

Schedule and feature content designed to empower women sources, journalists, and editors on the main program, center stage, and on the front page. This is vital if the issues are to be taken seriously, and to ensure male participants are also educated and motivated to embrace change and collaborate on gender equality initiatives. “To relegate issues about women is double-binding —because it makes it a ghetto,” says Catarina Carvalho, editor-in-chief of Portugal’s Global Media Group.

5. Conference organisers: Create opportunities for women’s active participation

Consider sponsoring female speakers and moderators, who may have less economic power than their male counterparts. And what about sponsoring childcare to accommodate female professionals with primary care responsibilities for young children? (See also Hannah Storm’s 13 suggestions for a more inclusive conference.)

6. Insist that your partner organisations and contracted contributors abide by principles of gender equality

Ensure that all conference partners, sponsors, moderators and speakers are aware of, have access to, and abide by organisational policies and codes of conduct on sexual harassment and gender equality to avoid a repeat of the Estoril incidents. WAN-IFRA has a policy in development — could it become a model for the industry?

7. Sponsors: Consider using the funding stick to enforce gender equality standards

Sponsors of journalism and media conferences and events should make funding contingent upon gender balance in the content, or should directly fund female speakers and moderators. Audit content thoroughly after events and publication, and consider withholding funding if equality is not achieved as promised. Facebook, Google, Twitter — we’re looking at you (along with an array of Northern European media development funds and intergovernmental organisations). Alternatively, perhaps consider the carrot of a funding bonus for success.

8. Share the platform

If your event must include speakers or panels from partner organisations or sponsors, insist they nominate a woman/women with expertise. And if you’re a male executive asked to represent your organisation as a speaker, consider nominating a more junior woman to take your place. Experience grows from opportunity.

9. Mind conversation culture

Male dominance on panels and in meetings, interruption of women who are speaking, or explaining to women things they are perfectly aware of (“mansplaining”) are common ways that women’s voices are silenced in work environments. Making your team sensitive to this and measuring contributions with simple apps can help foster an environment where women can thrive.

10. Edit bias out of your hiring and selection processes

The human brain is designed to use bias to navigate complex reality. It is not, however, designed to create equitable hiring and panelist selection procedures. We have to design programs and mechanisms to correct for bias by hand. For help, see Iris Bohnet’s recommendations on designing a bias-free organisation.

11. Sponsorship from the top: Achieving balance can’t happen as a grassroots initiative

Without buy-in from the top, gender initiatives will pop up and peter out. Men sponsoring talented women for promotion is one of the best ways to set an example for management and build diversity into leadership. Adam Grant has some great advice on how to do this if men in your organisation are nervous about mentoring and sponsoring women in the post-Weinstein world.

12. To pay equally, negotiate differently

Orit Kopel, CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation and co-founder of WikiTribune, says that the responsibility for equal pay rests with the employer, not the employee. To pay women equally, don’t abuse women’s tendency to undervalue their contribution. Give raises to those who deserve them, rather than to those who demand them.

13. Let women pull back and lean in when ready

Just because a woman refuses promotion when she wants to focus more on her family doesn’t mean she will never want to put her career in high gear again. Many women choose to focus on their children when they are small. Once kids reach a certain level of independence, their parents’ capacity to “lean in” tends to rebound in a big way. So, if a star player refuses once, keep trying.

14. Apply all of the above in reference to diversity more broadly

This includes race, class, and sexual orientation.

Read the full list of signatories here. You can add your own name to the list here.

This article was originally published by Nieman Lab and is reproduced here with permission

Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 12:11:40 IST