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When harassment drives women out of journalism

“I was someone who could have gone somewhere.”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

“Damn, you look hot today.”

It was 2013. Kate Havard was a reporting intern at the Washington Post covering the Maryland statehouse. And a lawmaker had just catcalled her in front of a large group of people.

“I was so embarrassed, I turned bright red. I felt really ashamed,” Havard recalled.

The treatment only got worse. And eventually she started to wonder if a career in journalism was worth it. Havard loved politics and reporting, but she soon left the field.

“I decided I didn’t want to have to fend off gross sources for the rest of my life,” she said.

The list of male journalists who have been fired for sexual misconduct is long and growing. Matt Lauer and Ryan Lizza have recently joined the ranks of Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, and Bill O’Reilly. Often lost in the headlines are the stories of how sexual misconduct and harassment hinder women from flourishing professionally, and prevent them from becoming prominent voices in their own right.

This is a problem for individual women like Havard, who find themselves questioning their professional goals after facing bad behavior. It’s also a problem for the public at large, who miss out on diverse voices in the news.

“We need to do way, way better at creating the workplace environments where all of us can do our best work,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, who is the head of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

“I suspect we’ve lost some very good people and some diverse perspectives because we expect tolerance for behavior that we excuse as colorfully characteristic of journalism, when in fact it’s just boorish.”

“I felt like I had to do my job with one hand tied behind my back”

As Havard’s internship wore on, she worried no one was taking her seriously as a journalist. A lawmaker licentiously growled at her and chased her around his office with a pair of antlers during a meeting. An aide told her that his boss had been watching the Netflix show House of Cards, which featured a plot about an affair between a male politician and a political reporter who, like Havard, is a redhead. You better watch out, he told her, in an attempt at a joke.

She discovered that a pro-gun group she wrote about was posting photos they found of her from high school and were making crude comments about her looks on a gun rights forum.

Havard wondered if all the attention meant she was bad at her job.

She also saw that much of the business of gathering sources and getting scoops was done after legislative session was over for the day. Part of learning the ropes of her beat was to make connections with legislators by being friendly and available to talk. She recalls that the more senior male reporters on her team often went out drinking with legislators until 10 or 11 at night to cultivate stories. They invited her to go along, but there was so much pressure to drink that Havard got a bartender friend to make her fake mixed drinks. She didn’t want to be ostracized for not participating.

Havard exchanged contact information with many lawmakers, but she found one delegate to be particularly persistent in wanting her attention for non-work-related matters. He repeatedly texted her to find out what she was doing or to start non-work conversations. (Havard provided Vox with screenshots of his text messages.) He was a well-connected legislator with a leadership position. She didn’t want to alienate him or make her superiors at the Post think she wasn’t able to handle her job.

Still, she told the male leader of her reporting team that she was uncomfortable with how often the delegate wanted to meet her. He assured her that the delegate was harmless, and offered to talk to him on her behalf, Havard recalled. She declined that offer, thinking that it would be embarrassing and useless.

A spokesperson for the Washington Post confirmed that Havard had raised her concerns with the lead reporter, and that he had offered to talk to the delegate for her.

“We would counsel our employees to escalate issues like this to management or HR so they can be addressed,” the spokesperson said. “We take these situations seriously, and our harassment policy prohibits harassment by third parties.”

“At first I blamed myself. I thought I’d been too friendly and given him the wrong idea.”

One night, the delegate invited Havard to a bar in downtown Annapolis. She thought the meeting would be a good opportunity to get leads for stories. But when she arrived at the bar, it became clear that the delegate saw the evening as a date, not a professional engagement. She sat down but was immediately uncomfortable. She kept her coat on as a defensive measure in the interest of keeping the meeting brief. Havard said that the delegate kept urging her to take off her coat and stay. She left a few minutes later, feeling like a line had been crossed.

“At first I blamed myself,” Havard said. “I thought I’d been too friendly and given him the wrong idea. I felt so awful that I thought I was just being a reporter, but that I had really screwed up with [this important source.]”

Havard said she was unsure of how to deal with interactions with the delegate from then on and was afraid to be left alone with him. She didn’t feel comfortable telling the leader of her reporting team what had happened because she felt he’d been unhelpful about her earlier concerns. Eventually, after the delegate sent her repeated non-work-related text messages that she didn’t answer, she asked him to stop contacting her, which he did. But that posed its own problems. “I felt like I had to do my job with one hand tied behind my back because I couldn’t talk to him,” she said.

When the Washington Post internship ended, Havard got another internship. At the end of that internship, she concluded she really liked reporting. But the idea of returning to a place like the statehouse, combined with the insufficient help she felt she from received from her employer in dealing with it, made her queasy.

“It wasn’t the only reason I left, but [it] made the decision to leave journalism a lot easier,” Havard said.

She decided to take her passion for research and reporting to the think tank and policy world. Although she occasionally does culture reviews and writing on the side, she now works full time in an academia-adjacent job.

Meetings often need to happen in private, which is “counter to all of the security precautions that experts would tell you to take”

Sexual harassment is widespread in the workplace, and its effects are pernicious. A 2017 ABC News/Washington poll found that around 33 million women in the US have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The same study found that just 42 percent reported the incident to a supervisor. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported on one study that found 75 percent of people who did speak up about incidents faced some form of retaliation.

Sexual harassment affects job satisfaction and factors into attrition. A UK law firm, Slater and Gordon, found that 20 percent of those experiencing a harassment incident considered leaving their jobs. A 2007 study published in Personnel Psychology found that workplaces where harassment was occurring had an impact on morale, productivity, and physical and mental health.

Women journalists are no strangers to this problem: In a 2013 International Women’s Media Foundation Poll, 46 percent of women respondents said they had experienced sexual advances or harassment while doing their job. It was most likely to happen in the office or out in the field.

Female journalists are particularly at a disadvantage in dealing with sources, Elisa Lees Muñoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, points out.

“The need to meet sources in private automatically puts women journalists at risk,” and is “counter to all of the security precautions that experts would tell you to take,” she points out.

Sources can also use attempt to use someone’s sexuality “as a bargaining chip for the exchange of information, which is really unique to women journalists.”

“His advice was, ‘Listen, if you want to make it in this industry, you’re going to have to toughen up’”

Journalists have to contend with harassment not just from colleagues, supervisors, and sources, but also from readers. Online abusers target women journalists in notably higher numbers than men: The British think tank Demos found in a 2014 study that on Twitter female journalists received three times as much abuse as their male counterparts.

Muñoz said “online harassment is one of the most pernicious problems women journalists are facing today.”

I spoke with one young woman who had an early-career look at the terrifying world of online harassment, as well as a poor institutional response in supporting her. I’m referring to her by her middle name, Teresa, because she is concerned about using her full name: She worries about getting attacked online again, and about reprisal from her former boss.

Teresa loved video games: She’d been writing about them since high school and had started a column on gaming in her college newspaper. In 2011, Teresa landed a college internship at one of her favorite gaming websites. It had a big readership and featured several writers she idolized. This felt like a big break.

A female video game writer had helped her get the interview at the company, but Teresa was dismayed that when she started the internship, that writer, along with several other women she admired, had been let go in a round of layoffs. With the exception of her and another female intern, every person working on the editorial side of the site was now an older white man.

When her internship was up, her boss invited Teresa to continue to freelance. She wanted to write about efforts to make gaming more inclusive of women, minorities, and people with disabilities. She remembers that her boss often rejected these pitches, insisting that no one cared about those issues. He encouraged her to do straightforward game reviews instead.

Still, she wrote about gender and other topics she cared about when she could. And as she developed a public profile as a writer, she began to receive disturbing emails. They seemed to her to be coming from people who were targeting her because they didn’t like a woman writing about games and giving her opinion. A post she wrote about sexism in video game narratives and design drew particular ire. She began receiving rape threats and death threats. The harassers found photos of her little brother and her parents’ address in their efforts to threaten her.

“I was so overwhelmed,” she said.

After sharing her fears for her safety with her mother and a friend, whom I spoke with and who confirmed Teresa’s version of events, she approached her boss about what she should do.

“He implied that I might be making this up. He didn’t seem like he believed me at all,” she recalled.

Eventually, he conceded that threats were made by real people, but Teresa recalled, “his advice was, ‘Listen, if you want to make it in this industry, you’re going to have to toughen up.’”

“I was someone who could have gone somewhere”

Teresa didn’t want to give up on video game writing. But shortly after she raised her concerns to her boss, he and everyone else she worked with at the company ghosted her. They no longer responded to any of her pitches or phone calls. She believes the fact that she complained about the harassment was a factor in no longer getting assignments.

When she graduated from college in 2013, she was still hoping to work in journalism, but since all of her connections and freelancing sputtered after her complaint, she decided to take a job working for an ad tech company.

Thinking back on her decision to let go of her video game journalism dreams, she said, “I feel a sadness. I really cared about this. I wanted to talk about culture and gaming and how it could be more inclusive. I was really interested in games for blind people or people with cerebral palsy. I’m not trying to say I was going to be the voice of a generation, but I was someone who could have gone somewhere.”

Teresa is now a product manager.

What could have been?

What could have been if Havard and Teresa had stayed in journalism instead of leaving after short stints in the industry? What if they and others like them had built careers on the subjects they were passionate about? Both statehouse coverage and video game writing have very few women in prominent roles. Which stories never got written because there was no one like these women to tell them?

This “what could have been” question echoes throughout much of the recent coverage of sexual misconduct in newsrooms. Two women spoke to Paul Farhi at the Washington Post about their encounters with Michael Oreskes of NPR. One said that “he utterly destroyed my ambition.” Another described, “When I first went to see him, it was after screwing up my nerve to try to be bold and maneuver myself into a better job, and after what happened with him, I never really tried that again.” Sarah Wildman, in her essay for Vox, described what happened after she reported Leon Wieseltier’s advances at the New Republic: “I wasn’t retaliated against. I was simply left to wither. I left the magazine a few months later.”

“The saddest thing about these stories is women who say, inevitably, ‘I retreated,’” the Nieman Foundation’s Lipinski told me earlier this fall. “It’s clear that for a lot of individuals a sexual harassment situation is untenable. You can’t stay. My guess is a lot of women have left in the wake of this abuse.”

Elisa Lees Muñoz believes news organizations can also do a much better job of supporting journalists like Havard and Teresa. She recommends that all reporters undergo hostile environment training courses, which are currently commonplace only with journalists who cover conflict zones.

“I think [such training] is relevant regardless of whether you’re covering a war zone, or if you’re covering a crime area, or if you’re covering your backyard. Women should have some level of knowledge when it comes to self-defense.”

As for dealing with harassment from sources or readers, Muñoz thinks news leaders should offer their reporters nuanced and individualized support. “It has to be a conversation, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to pull the woman [off a story] and put in a man, which is what happens most of the time today,” she said.

There are also structural changes that could help stop harassment in journalism: Women are underrepresented in leadership positions at American news organizations. I recently reported on how having more women in power could shape the cultures of the newsrooms where they work. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan told me, “If women are at the very top of the food chain they can exert influence, be role models, and provide encouragement and a place to turn,” she said. “It could help create a culture where there’s less tolerance for sexual harassment. It’s not a panacea, but I think it would have an influence.”

Putting more women in leadership positions is also crucial for improving coverage on issues, from reproductive rights to campus rape.

Both Havard and Teresa pointed to the lack of women in leadership positions in the work environments as making it difficult to navigate the challenges they faced.

“I would have felt more comfortable discussing what I was dealing with if I had a more senior woman around I could have asked for advice,” Havard said.

“I wish there had been someone to say, ‘No one will judge you for being harassed on the job’”

Havard and Teresa also both wonder how things might have been different if they’d started their journalism careers today, in this moment of reckoning on sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Perhaps if this had happened in 2017, I would have felt like I would have been taken more seriously,” Havard said. “I hope interns and young reporters will know that they don’t have to tolerate this behavior. I wish there had been someone to say, ‘No one will judge you for being harassed on the job.’”

“I hope all the stories coming out will change that,” said Havard. “At least for a little while.”

There is hope that things are changing at the Maryland statehouse: Recently, members of the Women Legislators of Maryland have formed a committee to create policies for responding to sexual harassment in the legislature.

Teresa says she now has a much stronger group of professional female connections through social media and Slack groups than she did as a college student. She says she wished she’d been able to consult them for advice and encouragement, so she wouldn’t have felt so alone.

“If this had all happened now, and I’d had a better support system, maybe I’d still be writing,” she said. “I’d like to think I would be.”

Katherine Goldstein is a freelance journalist who covers women and work, a contributing editor to Slate, and a 2017 Nieman journalism fellow. Find her on Twitter @KGeee.