By Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace
When Janet Coats was an intern reporting for a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, her boss was a hard-nosed city editor who drank whiskey all day from a thermos.
One day, he tore into her about a story she had done, and Coats ran to the bathroom and burst into tears. A veteran police reporter followed her into the bathroom and locked the door. “She said, ‘You can cry all you want in here, but don’t you ever, ever cry out there. Don’t do it.’”
Coats never forgot that lesson. Years later, when she was managing editor of the Tampa Tribune, she once left the newsroom to go sit in her car and have a good cry.
Coats was part of an influx of women into news organizations in the post-Watergate, Title IX era who, in many ways, transformed newsrooms.
They made their way from features sections to city desks, where they covered crime and courts and city hall. They advocated for stories that included the voices of women and that reflected topics women care about – education, health and social justice, among them.
And they moved into editing roles, where they called the shots, not just about what news got covered but who got to cover it.
How they navigated a male-led world
During the past two years, we interviewed nearly 100 women like Coats who made it into leadership roles in newspapers, broadcast and digital news outlets since the 1970s.
They were a smart, tough and sometimes profane bunch, and they relished breaking barriers. Along the way, they learned a lot about what it takes to succeed in an industry where women still face many of the same challenges they did 30 and 40 years ago.
These were women who called in news stories while in labor and parked their babies under their desks. They had “trailing spouses” who followed them from one end of the country to the other, or they skipped marriage and children altogether, unable or unwilling to sandwich in a personal life against the press of the news.
They learned to navigate a world that was male to its core — and they were called pushy broads, and worse, for their efforts.
Driven by instinct or personality, some were warm and collegial, while others were bossy and uncompromising. Like all leaders, they were a mix of traits – outgoing, reserved, decisive and open-minded.
What does a female leader look like?
But as women, they quickly learned they could be some of these things some of the time but none of these things all of the time. They found themselves running up against their company’s and society’s expectations of what a female leader looks like and acts like.
Ask people to draw a picture of a leader and they almost invariably will draw a picture of a man. Ask them to list the characteristics of a good leader and they will use words like decisive, analytical, confident and competent.
Women who aspire to leadership roles must be those things, but only within in a limited range. They also must be nice, but not too nice; speak up, but not too loudly; and take charge, but not in a bossy way.
While it’s not impossible to navigate this narrow band of behavior, it does make the climb that much more difficult – and the prospect of failure that much more likely. More.