A top executive at a major newspaper chain recently invited a hot prospect to lunch. She was an up-and-coming editor of a sizable metro paper looking to move to a bigger paper.
"You appear to be awfully sure of yourself," he said, examining her newspaper critique. "What's that all about?"
The story has made its way in recent weeks throughout the female editor's grapevine, along with befuddlement of how to finesse an appropriate response, neither too arrogant nor too wimpy.
It's a Catch-22 for a lot of women in newsrooms - and in business overall.
Generally, if you're a female talking to another female you might apologize. It's simply a form of politeness that women use for networking, explained Rutgers University anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, an expert in unpacking how men and women display their markedly different aptitudes in the workplace.
If you are a female talking to a man, though, the rules change. If you apologize, you'll likely be regarded as weaker, subordinate, of lesser rank.
It's all part of the different "evolutionary deck of cards" that women and men play with in the work place, Fisher told 50 top editors at a recent American Press Institute seminar focusing on "Women in Newsroom Leadership," co-sponsored with ASNE. Therein might lie some clues to explain recent studies showing that women's advancement in newsrooms is at risk.
Fisher's array of findings resonated strongly with the API group, 45 women and five men, who earlier had heard sobering news in the latest survey, "The Great Divide: Female Leadership in U.S. Newsrooms."
According to the report, about one in two top women editors fully expects to leave her current newsroom or exit the news business altogether. This compares to one in three men.
Just one in five women (20 percent) definitely wants to move up; only one in three (33 percent) predicts that it will actually happen, This compares to 36 percent of men who definitely want to move up and 42 percent who expect it will happen.
Most troubling was that a sizable 45 percent of women say they probably want to move up but have concerns. Key among them is their perception that a preference for men blocks their opportunity.
The study was jointly released by the American Press Institute and the Pew
Center for Civic Journalism at September's Curtis Seminar, an annual API program
that focuses on a subject of concern to the newspaper industry. It questioned
editors, managing editors and assistant managing editors at newspapers with
50,000-plus circulations. Responding were 273 editors, 40 percent of the total;
202 were men and 71 were women. See it online at www.americanpressinstitute.org
The API/Pew study comes just months after the Media Management Center at Northwestern University reported that the percentage of top editor positions held by women at major papers actually has declined over the past two years to 20 percent this year from 25 percent in 2000.
"To me, we're at a real crossroads with this issue," said Jeannine Guttman, editor and vice president of The Portland (ME) Newspapers. Guttman shared with seminar participants her experience with career coach Bob Wall, whom she credits with transforming her leadership style.
"I see a whole generation of editors, Baby Boomers, asking for and seeking help with coaching and mentoring," she said. "I don't see a great interest in the industry in answering that call."
Guttman, like many women editors in the survey, found she didn't need training in journalism, but rather in developing and capitalizing on her leadership assets.
Indeed, the API/Pew study suggested a group of women who would also benefit from targeted coaching. It found a great divide in newsrooms - but it's not between men and women. Rather it is between two distinct subsets of women: Career-Confident Women and Career-Conflicted Women.
The study concluded that the Career-Conflicted Women - those who have concerns about advancement and who are most in danger of leaving the news business - struggle without a solid base of tools to succeed.
But even Career-Confident Women, who are particularly well groomed for top leadership roles, say they will either definitely or probably make a lateral move (23 percent) and/or return to writing (18 percent).
What Sets Them Apart
Career-Conflicted Women are clustered heavily at the assistant managing editor level in large news organizations. They perceive roadblocks to promotion, including sexism and lack of opportunity.
They report lower satisfaction with their salary and their relationships with their bosses. They say they are less successful in setting strategic career goals. They report less face time with bosses, less confidence in their ability to market their ideas and to command attention and less knowledge of business and libel issues. They are less likely then men or Career-Confident Women to say they have mentors and more likely to say they've had other people take credit for their good ideas. They also report different preferences in news.
Career-Confident Women report having mentors, high levels of training, lots of access to their bosses, an ability to command attention and knowledge of the business that extends beyond simply doing journalism. They are highly satisfied and, overall, report the highest satisfaction of all top editors, men and women, with their salaries. They are confident that they can choose to move up, down or sideways in the business.
Ninety-three percent of all women reported a less-than-definite expectation of moving to the next level at their current paper; 40 percent don't see the opportunity to move up. And 64 percent of these women say management prefers to promote men.
Several seminar participants expressed concerns that family pressures present the biggest hurdle for women editors in upper management and limit their choices.
"So many women step off the full-time career path to devote more time to families. If they step back on later, they've lost ground, or believe they've lost ground to men who have been working full-time, uninterrupted, to get ahead," said Carole Leigh Hutton, recently named executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.
"Part-timers are too easily marginalized," she said, adding, "I'm actually fearful one day of having a full-time male workforce and a part-time female workforce."
According to the API/Pew survey, of those women who predicted they would not be promoted, about half (46 percent) said they didn't want to move up, compared to 27 percent of men. Of those editors not wanting a promotion, 48 percent of women cited a need for more family or personal time, compared to 12 percent for men.
In analyzing the two groups of women, the survey found that more Career-Conflicted Women attribute to themselves a traditionally female style of communication. While anthropologist Fisher sees this as an asset for the future of business, it can be a liability in many workplaces.
Fisher in her book "The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World," draws on scientific, genetic and even hormonal evidence to present a persuasive case for how women and men have evolved throughout history with markedly different aptitudes.
She asserts that women have a talent with words, a capacity to read body language, an ability to do and think several things at the same time, a knack for long-term planning and a preference for cooperating and reaching consensus.
They gather more data and integrate more details, weigh more variables and consider more outcomes in decision-making. They think, says Fisher, in webs of interrelated factors. She call it "web thinking." They've had to do all these things, to raise children, run their households and meet present and future needs, Fisher says.
Men over the ages have developed different talents. They have a keen understanding of spatial relations, an ability to control many of their emotions and a tendency to compartmentalize their attention. Men focus on one thing as a time, on immediate problems and process in a straightforward linear path to a solution. Fisher calls this "step thinking."
"Because women, on average, do not think in a linear step-by-step fashion regularly as men do, men often regard them as less logical, less rational, less concrete, less precise and even less intelligent," Fisher writes.
Men get frustrated when women raise a host of variables that men regard as superfluous, she asserts. "Women regard men as careless, unimaginative or tunnel-visioned when they ignore what women think are important aspects of a problem."
"This gender difference can cause real troubles when the sexes work together," she told the API group.
Fisher, as her book title suggests, is an optimist. She asserts that as current trends draw women in ever-larger numbers into the workforce, the business world will benefit from the natural aptitudes of the female mind.
In the meantime, she proffers some advice for befuddled women. While women shrink from verbal assaults, she observes that "men take co-workers more seriously when they argue back."
"Knock men around a little more," she told the group, only half joking. By dint of evolution, they are used to it.
For other advice, check out the "Survival Guide for Women Editors," hard-won
wisdom from the 50 editors participating in the seminar. It is on API's Web