Nearly all of my journalism professors in college were men. They had worked at papers such as The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, and they had won Pulitzer Prizes. I still carry with me the skills they taught about interviews and ethics and inquisitiveness. They talked about moving from city to city to seize opportunities and about working long hours and even wearing disguises to uncover a big story.
I remember only two women on the faculty, and neither had received the position of professor. Neither had fancy credentials, but both were respected. When I started my master’s degree, I became a teaching assistant for one of those women. Five other journalism graduate students, all women, also worked as her assistants. Often, when we gathered, she would talk to us about managing a family life and a journalism career, about the need for give and take with a spouse. I didn’t think a lot about our discussions at the time, but looking back, I can see that she imparted more wisdom than the Pulitzer winners.
I don’t know whether the male professors thought that the topic of work-family balance was beneath them or whether they just didn’t think about it. I would guess the latter. They had spouses who had accommodated their careers. Some of them hadn’t had children or they had had children later in life. About 70 percent of the students in my classes were women. This issue affects both genders, obviously, but women disproportionately disrupt their careers because of spouses and children.
Shortly before I finished grad school, I met with one of my favorite professors to talk about my future. He had taken a big interest in my career and told me about the hopes that the other professors had for me. When he learned that I was engaged, he jumped back in his chair. “Don’t get married,” he said mournfully. This was a man with a wife and kids and a seemingly happy family life.
Now, maybe he was saying that because I was young. But I think he was saying it because it’s very difficult to work your way up the journalism ladder when you have a spouse and potential children to consider. The hours can be long, the schedule erratic, the pay too little to justify cross-country moves.
Many of the women I know who have been very successful in journalism don’t have kids. Others have climbed the ladder before having kids. And a lot have veered onto other career paths. When I search for those women who were in grad school with me, they aren’t in journalism. They are teaching or doing public relations or staying home with their kids.
I’m looking at other paths now, hoping that I can find a job that is both satisfying and sane. It’s not lost on me that women working in science and medicine and law could have written this same essay. What a shame that the best advice we can offer ambitious women is “Don’t get married.”
And in case I have given the wrong impression, I will still consider journalism jobs (Hi, ProPublica. Hire me!) Someone has to show those female journalism students how to do this.