Female reporters refuse to remain silent about sexism

Allison Donahue of Michigan Advance wrote about her experience dealing with a legislator's sexist remarks while trying to do her job.

By Meryl Kornfield

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Allison Donahue had “just laughed it off” when sources made sexist comments about her, she told the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

But the 22-year-old rookie reporter from Michigan drew the line in January when Michigan state Sen. Peter Lucio told her in front of a group of high school boys that they “could have a lot of fun” with Donahue.

She decided to write about it. 

In a first-person perspective, she described how she went to Lucido for comment for an unrelated story she was writing for Michigan Advance, a nonprofit newsroom. Lucido had a group from his all-male alma mater visiting the Capitol, so she started to walk away. That’s when he made his comment, which, she said, received “an old boys’ network-type of laughter” from his young male audience. 

When she later confronted the Republican lawmaker about what he had said, he cut her off and didn’t apologize.

Even so, Donahue wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to write about the conversation. 

“There have been too many moments, big and small, that I wish I would have told someone or spoken up about,” Donahue wrote.

Less than a week after I read Donahue’s story, I read a story in the Miami Herald about Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández calling journalist Bianca Padró Ocasio a “pretty, little” reporter with a “nice face.” Ironically, he made the comment at a public meeting about one of his city’s police officers sexually assaulting multiple women. The Herald, which is owned by McClatchy, included Hernández’s remarks about Ocasio in the article about the meeting.

As a young female reporter, it’s encouraging to read that these stories are reported. Often, my female colleagues will confide in me terrible instances in which they’ve faced prejudice that never made the printed page. Publishing these accounts reminds the industry of the vast differences between how journalists are treated based on their gender.

Just look at how Donahue came to write her first-person perspective. When she struggled to find the words to tell the world about what had happened to her, she was influenced by another reporter who had taken a similarly brave step: Larrison Campbell of Mississippi Today. 

Campbell wrote last summer about Mississippi state Rep. Robert Foster, who was running for the Republican nomination for governor, and how his campaign insisted she be accompanied by a male colleague if she wanted to talk to Foster one-on-one because they were concerned about the appearance of the candidate talking to a woman even if it was her job. Foster later lost the election. 

Donahue also credits her female editor for empowering her to write about her experience. 

But can we continue to expect that other female reporters will be similarly encouraged in an industry that is often led by men? As of last year, only five of the 25 largest newspapers had women editors, USA Today reported

After Donahue’s story was published, she said women who had faced similar discrimination reporting in Lansing spoke up. 

Donahue does caution that if a female reporter writes about sexism she experiences, she should be prepared for blowback. Since Donahue wrote the story, four Republican lawmakers she’s sought comment from for her statehouse coverage haven’t responded. 

With more women in the industry, Donahue hopes there will be fewer instances of sexism. However, women still remain a minority in newsrooms. Male journalists report three times more news than female reporters at three of the top broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — combined, according to a 2017 study by Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Because of her unisex name and the prominence of male reporters, Eugene Weekly reporter Taylor Perse said sources often think they’ll be talking to a man when she shows up for interviews. 

“It’s disappointing to have that reaction,” the former IRW intern said. “But at the same time, I see the field growing for women. I hope that continues, and I can show up to interviews without people assuming I’m older and male.”

Donahue is excited about The 19th, a nonprofit news organization built by women and focused on women’s issues. The site, which launched this year, derives its name from the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. The amendment gives all women the right to vote, although black women and men wouldn’t be fully enfranchised until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

“It’s a step toward creating a more inclusive mediascape,” Donahue said of the new organization. 

Emily Ramshaw, who left the Texas Tribune to co-found The 19th, said gender is not something to shy away from. 

“This isn’t the day’s news but pink. This is unique, original coverage about the roles of gender in politics and policy,” Ramshaw told The Washington Post. “We are not doing turn-of-the-screw reporting, but rather what that turn of the screw means for different parts of the women’s electorate.”

Maybe, though, those who most need to hear these accounts are the men themselves, Donahue suggested in her post. 

“But it mattered to me that I wrote this, because maybe Sen. Lucido, and likely many other men in power, will think twice about making comments like this anymore to the young girls who visit the Capitol on a field trip, or the female reporters who are there to get a quote for a story or their female colleagues who are there to do their job,” she wrote.