It’s never been easier or more acceptable to call out bias in the media

Women’s voices.
Women’s voices.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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At the start of what is likely to be the most important feminist election cycle in American history, the role of women in the media has become a constant topic—yet the percentage of female voices remains small relative to their male counterparts in public life.

This is a good time to take stock, look at the changing landscape, and see where shifts may come from. A veteran social entrepreneur and organizer, Jamia Wilson is the executive director of Women, Action & the Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a robust, effective, inclusive movement for gender justice in media.”

Formerly executive director of Youth Tech Health, a TED Prize Storyteller, vice president of programs at the Women’s Media Center, and principal for Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s youth outreach program, Wilson is already looking at what’s being said in the political arena—and who’s saying it.

I caught up with Wilson via email, to get her thoughts on the current landscape and her organization’s work—and whether we really are closer to a tipping point for gender fairness and the battle against sexism.

Tom Watson: Let’s go right at the Hillary Clinton campaign launch—since it’s already become a cultural phenomenon greater than the GOP field combined, and yes, there’s already a focus on aspects of her life that male candidates don’t face nearly as much? Have things changed since 2008—or (as the likely Democratic nominee) are we in for a long 18 months in terms of public sexism?

Jamia Wilson: Sadly, I predict that sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign will continue because sexist and misogynist coverage of women candidates is still a sad reality in our media culture. In March, the Chicago Sun Times featured a profile on her “many facial expressions,” and we have already seen other coverage that would likely be different if it were about a male presidential candidate.

Sean Hannity recently referred to Hillary Clinton as an “aging, out of ideas, often shrill” grandmother—while describing Senator Rubio as “young and energetic.” Perhaps some of the sexist coverage will be more shrouded because of public critiques during the 2008 cycle, but I anticipate that undue focus on her husband, her looks, her attire, her personal life, and her age will persist.

Watson: It feels to me like people are more willing to call out the obvious gender bias against Clinton this time around—and I theorize that some of the battles you and others have fought against online bullying, trolls, threats of violence, and just general misogyny have had a wider cultural effect that may show up in something like the Presidential race. Is there something to that, and do you think the media (which seems stuck in 2008 a lot of the time) will take notice?

Jamia Wilson: I like your theory. The work we and our coalition partners are doing to combat misogynist abuse and ensure freedom of expression for women and transgender people is pushing us towards a cultural tipping point where media sexism and online abuse are viewed as the toxic barriers to democracy and honestly, human dignity that they are.

We have seen some progress, but there’s a lot more work to do. I dream of a world where there is no need for a job like mine because gender justice in media and our culture overall will exist. I may not live to see it, but I’m committed to being a part of the movement that will help get us there.

Tom Watson: In WAM’s organizing activities, what are you hearing from participants in terms of media and gender? I suspect there’s a movement brewing there whose sheer size would surprise people—but I’d love to get your insights from the field.

Jamia Wilson: WAM! is a strong, growing community of people engaged with media, learning and sharing capacity and skills needed to build a media ecosystem that truly represents our diversity. The activists, media makers, academics, writers, and artists in our network comprise a robust, inclusive movement to create gender justice in media.

I was a member of WAM! before I joined the team as a staff member. WAM!’s people-powered approach to change making and community building is what inspired me to join the network. Our chapters support WAM! Central’s targeted campaigns like our current work addressing online harassment on Twitter. Our chapters are also focused on issues that impact them locally but also have a broader reach.

We recently kicked-off WAM! It Yourself, a decentralized version of our annual conference where international WAM! Members launched coordinated actions focused on gender justice in media in a dozen cities. Every city determined what their focus would be based on the needs they identified in their community and beyond, for example WAM!mers from Buenos Aries to Columbus, OH organized and implemented events like WAM! Boston’s Film Festival and WAM! DC’s Salary Negotiation Workshop.

Tom Watson: Going a bit wider, the idea of networked feminism—which may (or may not!) unite several generations, people from different backgrounds, and not just a few men as well—is force to be reckoned with in the public discussion and in civil society: are we on track for that? What needs to change within the movement? What should organizers and activists do more of?

Jamia Wilson: Networked feminism allows us to leverage online tools and online public space to impact public discourse and influence our cultural narrative. I’m in awe of how the media landscape has changed as a result of the public accountability and movement building that has emerged from networked feminism. As someone who is a millennial but who was organizing activists before the internet was widespread, I feel empowered by the access and influence online media provides.

While I largely view online media as a democratizing force, I’m concerned about the barriers that can prevent low-income women, girls, and trans people from using these tools to amplify their voices and influence the public conversation. Also, the vicious targeting of women who speak up online has reached crisis levels, with women being the most targeted population overall. That’s why we need all advocates for gender justice and fairness to join the movement to end online harassment.

Until we ensure that all users are equally free to speak without being targeted by abuse, threats, and harassment, a significant portion of the population will be silenced.

Tom Watson: There has never been a time when sexual violence has been talked about so openly in this country—from the campus rape stories to the threats of GamerGate to the missteps of conservative politicians in discussing the issue. Are we making progress and how can the media—and particularly online media companies—improve that conversation, and make the landscape safer for women?

Jamia Wilson: There have been steps forward, but there’s so much work to be done. While Gamer Gate and sexual assault on campus have been covered widely, not all of the coverage was fair and balanced. When victim-blaming in media coverage occurs like it did in the Rolling Stone piece, it illuminates the need to create and improve newsroom standards about how sexual violence is discussed in the media—and how sources who have experienced trauma are treated.

I hope that Rolling Stone’s journalistic failure will inspire media decision makers and editors to create more comprehensive and effective standards to prevent this from happening in the future. What saddens me is that victim-blaming and shaming in the media (and the stigma it perpetuates in our culture) prevents some survivors from reporting sexual assault.

Note: I have resigned as a contributor to Forbes.

Yesterday, I posted this interview with Jamia Wilson of Women, Action & the Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a robust, effective, inclusive movement for gender justice in media.” I consider her work, and that of feminist organizers everywhere, to be vitally important to the field of social entrepreneurship and to public life.

The editors found it inappropriate for the section of Forbes I have contributed my Social Ventures column to for the last three years—and they removed it this morning. I strongly disagree with their decision and we have parted ways.

Despite this, I appreciate the audience and platform Forbes provided, and am grateful for the opportunity to write about social entrepreneurship, citizens movements, new nonprofit models, and philanthropy. That conversation will continue elsewhere.

Thank you all for supporting my work—it is deeply appreciated.