Taking charge: Women journalists build a more inclusive industry

From websites and newsrooms to databases and collectives, women are working to overcome sexism and discrimination as they shape a new frontier in media.

Danielle Villasana
Published in
13 min readMay 9, 2018


Iman Udayni waits alongside her family for the Eid al-Fitr prayer to begin at Bensonhurst Park in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge on June 25, 2017. The family moved to the United States in 2011 and 2012 to escape war in Yemen. Photo by Women Photograph member Kholood Eid, @kholoodeid

Women have forged, paved, and maintained pathways in journalism since breaking into the industry in the mid-1800s. Yet the status that women hold in newsrooms, behind the camera, and in positions of power throughout the industry remains bleak.

To cite just a few grim statistics: as of last year women had won only 16 percent of Pulitzer prizes in all categories, a full century after the creation of the award. Only 38 percent of bylines in the top 20 news organizations in the U.S. go to women, and women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff. In June 2017 Poynter reported that women who were employed full-time by Dow Jones & Company earned less than 85 percent of what their male counterparts earned. Last year, only 13 percent of front page photos in major international newspapers were taken by women. And since the founding of World Press Photo in 1955, only four women have won first prize, none of whom were women of color.

Percentages of front page images photographed by women in 2017 in leading newspapers around the world. Courtesy of Women Photograph

Documentary photographer Donna De Cesare began pursuing a photojournalism career in 1981, at a time when few women had found prominence as photographers. “It was a dominantly male context and fiercely competitive with an ethos of bravura and adventurism,” said De Cesare. “In this context to raise the question of sexism or gender discrimination was to invite ridicule or face being trivialized.”

Ignoring the sexism and “locker-room jibes,” De Cesare pushed forward, putting herself on the front lines of the war in El Salvador in the late 80s. Since then she has worked long-term on documenting the effects of the war, culminating in her book “Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs,” which placed as a finalist in the 2013 Picture of the Year International’s Best Photography Book category.

De Cesare’s work exploring gangs in Los Angeles and Central America has been supported by the Dorothea Lange / Paul Taylor Prize, the Alicia Patterson Fellowship for Social Documentary, and the Open Society Foundations Audience Engagement grant. Her work has been exhibited at Visa Pour L’image, the Annenberg Space for Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, among other spaces. De Cesare is also a Fulbright fellow and won the 2013 Maria Moors Cabot Award for her work in Latin America.

During the rebel offensive in November 1989 in Soyapango, El Salvador, civilians in a zone held by insurgents flee their neighborhood after three days of aerial bombing and strafing by the Salvadoran air force. Displacement during the offensive provoked a significant uptick in migration to the United States. Photo by Donna De Cesare

De Cesare was my first photojournalism teacher at The University of Texas. I’ll never forget how she stood before an auditorium full of first-year journalism students, myself included, and spoke compellingly of ethics and dedication as her powerful images flipped across the movie-theater size screen. De Cesare says women outnumber men at least three to one in the classes she teaches. (According to The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, women make up more than two-thirds of journalism or mass communication graduates.) Nonetheless, women today face many of the same issues, including professional underrepresentation, that De Cesare has faced throughout her career.

“We still lag behind male counterparts when it comes to salaried staff positions whether at legacy media or at digital startups,” said De Cesare. “Women are most visible among the self-employed ranks of freelance photographers. Career longevity and the struggle to balance career and personal life, whether or not that includes motherhood, remain great challenges for most women in visual journalism.”

De Cesare believes the media industry is quick to overlook structural factors contributing to inequity while pointing to women who are exceptions as proof that one can have it all. “This harms women,” she said.

Like many women afraid of the discrimination they might face for being pregnant or having a family, Associated Press photojournalist Jacquelyn Martin waited five months to tell her boss she was pregnant due to her concern about being treated differently. “Thankfully, the whole desk was supportive and helpful — more than I ever expected,” said Martin.

“There’s security in being on a staff. Freelancers for other organizations have told me they’ve hidden their pregnancies literally until the day they drop. They don’t want people to decide for them that they are no longer able to do the work,” said Martin, who is also a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW), a non-profit organization that nourishes women’s professional success by hosting workshops, mentorship programs, and an annual juried exhibition.

Discriminatory decisions can start even before employment begins. During a job interview, a company representative told reporter Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato that she looked like someone who would want to “stay home with the kids,” and wouldn’t be a good fit because the job required a lot of travel.

“I’ve had many male editors ask my age, my marital status, and whether I have children — all inappropriate questions and completely unrelated to my competence as a journalist,” said Bloudoff-Indelicato, who recently founded Diverse Sources, a searchable database that provides contacts for underrepresented experts in science, health, and the environment, her fields of expertise.

From left: 1) Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2017, before testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about his role in the firing of James Comey, his Russian contacts during the campaign and his decision to recuse from an investigation into possible ties between Moscow and associates of President Donald Trump. 2) House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., center, and the committee’s ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., second from right, listen to staffers as they confer on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 14, 2016, during the committee’s hearing on Iran. The committee approved legislation to prohibit the U.S. from making cash payments to Iran and requires that any future settlements with Tehran be conducted openly. 3) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says goodbye to U.S. Ambassador to Italy David Thorne, center right, as she boards her plane leaving Rome, on Friday, May 6, 2011. Photos by Jacquelyn Martin for The Associated Press, @jacquelynmartin

Until recently, acknowledgment of sexual harassment in the media industry existed only in hushes and whispers, while some predatory men continued to gain accomplishments and recognition. Movements such as Me Too and TIME’S UP have inspired the journalism industry to examine how silence has excused and enabled abusers for too long. But we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. The “Shitty Media Men” list, an anonymous, crowdsourced, private document, was created last year as a way to help women protect themselves by inviting them to share allegations of sexual harassment and assault by men in the media.

“The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation,” wrote the list’s creator, Moira Donegan, in a piece for The Cut. “Too often, for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones.”

Donegan shared the document with close friends and colleagues, but it quickly went viral. Only a dozen hours after its creation, she was informed that Buzzfeed would be writing an article about it, thus making the spreadsheet public. By the time Donegan took it offline, shortly after hearing that news, 70 men had been named, who, according to Buzzfeed, worked for organizations such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and BuzzFeed.

Women were able to add to the document anonymously to protect themselves from being “fired, harassed, or publicly smeared” — but Donegan wrote that she lost friends and was fired from her job. “As we have seen time after time, there can be great social and professional consequences for women who come forward,” Donegan wrote. “I’ve learned that protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself.”

Founded by photographer Daniella Zalcman, Women Photograph won this year’s The International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Online Platform and New Media. Video courtesy of MediaStorm

Despite discrimination, harassment, and other obstacles, the power of women — in talent, in sheer numbers, and in the ways we protect and support one another — is impossible to ignore. Women Photograph, founded by Daniella Zalcman last year, is a testament to that power. The website and private database boast more than 700 independent women and non-binary documentary photographers based in 91 countries. The organization has already expanded quickly to offer grants, a mentorship program, and travel funds. This year, Women Photograph won The International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Online Platform and New Media.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of MFON (Women Photographers of the African Diaspora) believes in the importance of community as a way to enrich people’s lives. “This is also important for women of African decent and women of color,” said Barrayan, who is concerned chiefly with encouraging intersectionality to foster empowerment. “For women we know that there is an ongoing issue of sexism and unequal pay. For black women, from my conversations and own experiences, there is just a lack of opportunity that is even worse than it is for our white counterparts.”

The inaugural issue of MFON features the work of more than 100 photographers of African descent. “Issues of lack of diversity, discrimination, the centering of the white male gaze have been expressed over and over again,” said Barrayn. “We have done our part in identifying the problem areas. Now, it is up to the gatekeepers to really have those uncomfortable conversations about their privilege and how it enables the erasure of a balance in representation in the media.”

Marilyn Nance, a photographer and archivist whose work is featured in the first issue of MFON, echoes this sentiment. “The hardest thing for some folks is to be seen. And one of the most important things that one can say is, ‘I see you. I value you.’ When people are overlooked, others don’t see value in them,” said Nance.

To tackle hurdles specific to women of color in the media, photographer and board member of Seattle’s Asian American Journalists Association Jovelle Tamayo joined visual artists Tara Pixley, Rozette Rago, Oriana Koren, Hannah Yoon, Sophia Nahli Allison, Bethany Mollenkof, Rikki Wright, Tia Thompson, and Rebecca Aranda to create the Authority Collective.

On Aug. 19, 2012, a soldier from the 101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion of the New York Army National Guard Soldiers cries during a farewell deployment ceremony where members of the military said goodbye to their families before departing for post-mobilization training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and eventual deployment to Afghanistan. Photo by Melissa Elian/The Journal News, @hellobunni. Elian is a member of the Authority Collective.

“In professional settings, we found ourselves gravitating toward each other as relief from white and male-dominated spaces,” Tamayo said. “Through these connections, we realized we weren’t alone in facing micro-aggressions and harassment in the field and from colleagues, or feeling tokenized or pigeonholed because of our identities.”

The collective, which officially launched in April and currently includes more than 100 members, aims to remove barriers for women, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people of color who wish to enter the media industry, while elevating the voices of people of color already working in the media.

“We want change, real and lasting change to what is possible in visual media, in representation and among our colleagues’ understandings of what accessibility, accountability, and ally-ship can and should be,” said Pixley. The collective plans to provide resources for its members and community through workshops, meetups, and portfolio reviews, while providing guides on pricing, marketing, storytelling, and navigating the industry as a professional of color.

The collective is currently accepting nominations for the Lit List, which will feature the work of 30 marginalized artists. “Simply put, no white dudes allowed,” the website states. “There are other lists for that.”

From left: 1) Students wait to enter Hartford High School’s prom on Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Fireside Inn in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Photo by Jovelle Tamayo, @jovelletamayo, co-founder and board member of the Authority Collective. 2) A Sea Shepherd volunteer scans the waters off San Felipe, Mexico, for any sign of illegal fishing in Feb. 2017. Photo by Tara Pixley, @tlpix, co-founder and board member of the Authority Collective.

For an industry based on the act of seeing, bearing witness, and truth-telling, we should be working overtime to ensure that media makers are just as diverse as the stories they tell — and that the stories we tell are also composed of diverse characters.

Frustrated by the lack of diverse sources quoted in the media, journalist Lauren Bohn co-founded Foreign Policy Interrupted (FPI), an initiative to amplify women voices in international affairs by conducting fellowship programs offering women foreign policy experts media training and editorial mentorships at major publications.

Bohn says she constantly comes across women who are hesitant to give their analysis on an issue even though many of them have doctoral degrees from some of the best universities in the world, along with plenty of field experience. Women hold themselves to a higher threshold of certainty before they share an opinion.

“This much talked about ‘confidence gap’ isn’t some unfortunate result of biological determinism. Over centuries of disenfranchisement and straight-up abuse, women’s insecurity and reluctance to identify as experts — or claim positions of power — have evolved into coping and defense mechanisms,” said Bohn. “It’s no wonder why that’s the case: when women assert themselves, we’re subject to more ridicule and criticism than men are.”

Since its inception in 2014, FPI has granted 40 fellowships to women, including Rhodes Scholars, vice presidents overseeing multi-billion dollar portfolios designed to reduce poverty through economic growth, epidemiologists for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and lawyers investigating and litigating violations of “the war on terror.”

Bohn believes that one thing is clear: gender disparity is not due to a lack of female voices in the media, but rather a “full-blown demand deficit.” And that to truly close the gap, more spaces need to be created that value women’s voices.

“Men — who make up most of the leadership on editorial and executive boards — must not only be allies, but accomplices,” Bohn said.

Many editors have told Bohn that due to time constraints, they’re forced to fall back on who they know. “This sexism is exacerbated by a crazy news cycle in which producers and editors don’t have the bandwidth to identify, much less cultivate, new voices. Unfortunately, that often means referring to a long list of white men,” she said.

Despite the incredible success of longer-established organizations such as the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Women’s Media Center, what’s significant about this recent boom of initiatives is that it is happening at a time when the media industry seems finally to be listening. What’s more, we’re beginning to see men speak out as allies.

Recently at the World Press Photo festival in Amsterdam, photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale gave a speech that sounded like a manifesto on the role of activism in photojournalism.

Bleasdale asked the audience how an industry that prides itself on exposing human rights abuses (including sexual violence) can sit quietly when some members of that industry commit similar injustices.

“They know who these people are, yet they remain silent,” Bleasdale said. “Would they be as tolerant with a world leader who has abused women, or a rebel group who uses rape as a weapon of war, or a government who promotes underage marriage?”

The fact that Bleasdale — a white, cisgender male — spoke out was applauded by many as a significant moment. Unfortunately, examples of speaking out against sexism and racism on such a prominent and public platform are still rare.

“Several agencies are representing themselves as defenders of human rights, yet they protect the very perpetrators in their list of photographers they represent. This is not acceptable. You can no longer defend human rights while protecting the abusers. It must stop, and it must stop now,” said Bleasdale.

From left: 1) and 2) Selections from “Where do you go when you go?” by Néha Hirve, @nehahirve, a recipient of the 2017 Women Photograph + ONA grants. Hirve’s ongoing personal project is an exploration of the ways we internalize the abstract objects of our attachments. 3) A portrait of a woman during a procession in honor of the “Santa Muerte,” or Holy Death, in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2015. 4) A portrait of Mexican farmer intertwined with red thread, as used for many Mexican rituals. Photos by Luján Agusti, @lujanag, a recipient of the 2017 Women Photograph + ONA grants, from her documentary project about witchcraft and wizardry in Mexico.

We must continue to provide support that goes beyond diversifying hiring practices for women, transgender women, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people — through grants, funding, trainings, and mentorships. More space needs to be allocated for working mothers. Studies, trainings, and educational resources on diversity, racism, and sexism need to be more frequently conducted and supplied. And sexual predators should swiftly be held accountable when cases of harassment arise — no matter how minor. Ultimately, more allies need to be willing to speak out against sexism and racism and make concerted efforts to advocate for women.

“We want to challenge who holds power in the visual media world by uplifting our community and holding institutions accountable,” said Tamayo, of the Authority Collective. “We are making a point to focus on actions because we don’t have time to wait for these gatekeepers — who are happy to talk about inclusion but do little to address it in meaningful ways — to follow through.”

And as Bohn points out, including more women and marginalized voices in the media is not simply about diversity for diversity’s sake. “When the voices and expertise of women are included in the conversation, we quickly gain deeper insight into a complex world, one historically narrated by only one segment of society,” she said. It’s these deeper insights that will help lead to solutions — for groups long seen as peripheral and for society as a whole.

Clear systemic problems remain entrenched, halting professional growth for women early in their careers and undercutting any hope of growing the ranks of women at the upper echelons of power. “When women drop out of the field or downsize the amount of time they spend on image-making in order to find more structured or economically stable work lives as editors or teachers, it’s sometimes seen as an admission that you just were not good enough or cut out for the competitive realities of international contract photography,” Donna De Cesare said.

“The current system eats up the young and spits them out.”

There are many more women (and women of color) working as visual journalists today than there were when De Cesare began her career, with some even breaking through to become publishers of print and online media platforms. Still, progress has been slow, and an industry-wide reluctance to work together is self-evident.

“We need to work toward a more collaborative model of working,” De Cesare said. “If visual journalism is to survive and thrive in its mission to show us what is happening to people in our communities, our nations, and our planet, it must rely more on teamwork.”

Brothers play in the Mirik hills of Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India, in Nov. 2015. Photo by Mary Kang, @mary.kang, a photographer based in New York City and board member of the Authority Collective.

This is the last piece in our “Truth-Telling” series — thanks for reading. Don’t miss our previous article, in which Danielle Jackson examines the limits of diversifying the field of photography in an age of fragmented media. And here’s a link to the whole series!

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist focusing on human rights, women, identity, and health around the world. She’s a member of The Everyday Projects Community Team and is based in Istanbul. Follow her on Instagram.

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Danielle Villasana

Independent Photojournalist focusing on human rights, women, identity, and health worldwide. Community Team at The Everyday Projects, @EverydayEverywhere.