Historically, journalism (like most industries) has been heavily male-dominated—especially among the top editors. And even today, as women comprise over two-thirds of journalism school graduates, the media industry is just one-third women, a percentage that only decreases for women of color. As of 2017, men received 62% of bylines and other credits in print, online, TV, and wire news, according to a Women’s Media Center report.
Amid these statistics, Rebecca Blumenstein is something of an anomaly. Now deputy managing editor at the New York Times, a post she assumed in Feb. 2017, Blumenstein spent 22 years at the Wall Street Journal. There she held various roles, including deputy editor-in-chief (her final role), page one editor, international editor, and China bureau chief. Blumenstein remains the highest-ranking woman to lead the the Journal’s news organization to date.
So, what’s Blumenstein’s advice for women who hope to emulate her success, in or beyond journalism?
“A long time ago I learned a couple techniques, and one is that I speak up early in meetings,” she told a gathering of Quartz reporters and editors in a newsroom forum about mentorship in New York today (Aug. 24).
Even now, as deputy managing editor of (arguably) the most prestigious paper in the world, Blumenstein admits she’s still sometimes intimidated to speak up during morning news meetings—especially when her Times colleagues discuss controversial topics like Trump, or when prestigious guests drop in. (“Bill Gates came by recently,” she noted.)
Blumenstein is not alone. Research suggests that in most mixed-gender meetings, men suck up approximately 75% of the talking time. What’s more, even the most powerful women in business and politics are routinely interrupted by men.
“I think as women, not to generalize, but many of us can feel intimidated to speak up—even with 25 years in your business and knowing the topics relatively well,” said Blumenstein. “So I just made a point of speaking up early in meetings, because if you don’t, you begin to have thoughts, then someone else will make your point, and you begin to feel like not so much a part of the meeting. It may seem silly, but that basic meeting dynamic is something that’s very important to our peers, and something I’m still working on now.”
Simple as it may seem, speaking up early in a meeting, especially as a woman, establishes your confidence and knowledge, while protecting your ideas from being hijacked by a (probably male) colleague. Countless studies (and even more hilarious cartoons) have shown that even when women do speak up, male colleagues frequently receive credit for their ideas.
Ultimately, speaking up early won’t reverse sexism, but it does challenge your colleagues to take you seriously, and sets a powerful example for younger employees, especially young women. According to Blumenstein, higher-level culture shifts come from male and female employees making a genuine effort to get to know one another as human beings, not just coworkers. As she said:
People who are like one another can end up hanging out with one another. Personally, I like going out to drinks [with teammates]. I think there’s a breaking-bread element out of the office, where it’s really important to get to know one another. But you have to make sure that you do that in your own terms, and in doing so, you fight that tendency of guys just hanging out with other guys.
Despite the cultural and economic forces that favor men, Blumenstein said the Journal was particularly good at promoting and mentoring women. Two of her promotions occurred when she was on maternity leave, she said, one of which led her to move from Detroit to New York City with a six-month old baby.
When Blumenstein became pregnant with her third child—which she says was a rarity at the Journal, where most parents had no more than two children—she was nervous to tell her then-editor, Paul Steiger. “I was just panicked, and I went into his office and immediately started apologizing,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m really serious about my career, I promise this won’t affect my work.'”
Steiger cut her off. “Rebecca, I’ve been watching you for a long time,” she says he told her. “You have one kid, come back, and you’re fine. You have two kids, come back, you’re fine. You can have fifty kids, for all I care, and you’ll be fine.”
“With that, I picked myself up, and I was okay,” said Blumenstein. Two years later, Steiger sent her to China, to become bureau chief, along with her three children.
“I think mentorship can be just the right piece of advice, at the moment that you need it,” she said. “It goes way beyond a role model mentor, or a formal mentor program. I’ve always got those pieces of advice from scattered places, and they keep me going moving forward.”