Learning to see after you've been operating blindly for so long can be daunting. It is for me. And it is for many businesses, including media outlets. But we have to start thinking about the big picture if we want to build a truly more inclusive world.
In media, seeing that big picture along with the details is vital. That's why it's important that every newsroom (and every business, period) have a diverse staff on all levels and on all teams. With women, Black folks, disabled folks, LGBTQ+ folks and more thinking through coverage, asking questions, writing stories and snapping photos, we can cover more communities in meaningful ways. It means that we can notice when a headline uses slanted language. It means that we can ensure that we're not documenting only people who look or think like we do. It provides countless checks and balances and ultimately pushes a better, more accurate, more trustworthy product.
Unfortunately, many newsrooms still are typically led by and centered upon heterosexual, able-bodied white men. Those folks are great, but all kinds of things end up falling through the cracks because that demographic lacks certain lived experiences that provide nuance. One major consequence is that stories, photos and layouts inadvertently erase or malign those from more marginalized communities -- even when outlets mean to build up those folks.
That's what happened here.
In 2016, a local business publication released a package of content centered around the area's most influential women in business. That we have to put businesswomen into a special category of their own because the industry still thinks they're novel is another blog post completely, but whatever. Yay, women.
Or so it seemed.
The publication inexplicably decided to showcase these intelligent, driven leaders not by photographing them in their offices. Not by sidebars filled with the women's favorite tips or books. Not with charts highlighting the revenue boosts companies enjoyed after these leaders took over. Not in photos with tools for success.
No, this publication themed its entire package for these hardworking women around shoes.
Shoes. As in "What shoe best describes you?"
Editors actually approved this. Seemingly nobody who was in this editorial meeting said, "Hey, wait a minute..."
When this package came out, I was livid and disappointed. What might have been a source of pride for these CEOs, investment managers and startup owners instead was a humiliating trope that awkwardly played on stereotypes about women's love of shopping. In one 1950s-echoing package, it was like these women's accomplishments were completely trivialized.
I wasn't the only one who noticed. Readers, social media junkies and some of the featured women themselves,were vocal about their disappointment. The outrage spread like fire.
I wanted to write about it. I wanted to so much. Unfortunately, this happened at a time when I was completely loaded up with other projects and wouldn't be able to get to it until days later when the story wouldn't be as timely. Adamant that this needed to be documented immediately, I talked my Riverfront Times editor-in-chief into looking at the situation. She wrote up a brilliant digital feature that drew national attention to the issue and followed up a few more times with related stories. I'm so grateful to frequently team up with an editor who trusts my judgement, takes appropriate action and calls out BS.
Minutes after she'd published her piece, I'd posted the following to Facebook:
This is when I fall more in love with Sarah Fenske. Her Riverfront Times takedown of the St. Louis Business Journal's ghastly shoe-themed photo essay and introduction to this year's "Most Influential Business Women" hit all the right notes. But for the folks in the bleacher seats arguing that people have better things to talk about or for the area's male leaders who want to explain away why the STLBJ did this, let's break it down.
* The STLBJ, which has faults and attributes like any business or media member, is positioned as a media outlet. People look to it for ego boosts, yes, but also for legitimate news. Reporters do a great job digging into a number of industries. Thus, the paper holds a certain cache, standard and responsibility.
* The introduction to the Business Journal's photo series about the awardees introduces "shoes" as a theme. Theming photo essays and forming a narrative around many similar-but-different people is a long-held media tool, and sometimes it works. In this case, it doesn't, because shoes are objects that are tied to supposed standards of beauty instead of supposed standards of power or influence. I think (hope) that the STLBJ's intent was to say "Hey, shoes are an allegory for the difficult places these women have 'walked,' so let's turn shoes into a powerful thing here." But instead of reading that way, the introduction and photos come off as "I'm a business woman. Here are my flip flops. Because these shoes demonstrate my business acumen more than my words ever can!" I get it -- it's hard to say visually so much of what needs to be said in a photo series. But this one failed.
* In addition to the photo essay, there's another piece that introduces the awardees and continues with capsules and quotes dedicated to each person. The introduction, written by a male editor, continues pushing the "shoes = women" theme to uncomfortable proportions. "...it turned out to be the perfect filter to show readers the best qualities of these 25 spectacular business women." No, it's not. If this were published in a lifestyle magazine, it might fly because of target demographic and expectations. A business newspaper, however, has a responsibility to do more, to ask more. It has no place in equating women receiving awards to something common. The reality that this shoe narrative was pitched and approved sincerely baffles me.
* The STLBJ yearly awards a number of area leaders with the collective title of "Most Influential Business Women." That's great on a superficial level, but that's like saying "Great job running your business/non-profit/educational institution/cultural institution/etc. for a girl." Meanwhile, the December edition of the paper's "40 Under 40" lists fewer than 16 winners as female (I say "fewer than" because I'm including several names that could present as either feminine or masculine). The January "30 Under 30" appears to have fewer than 12 women by the same parameters. This does not even get into the racial diversity (or non-diversity) of the awardees, which is a completely different post. The point is that women don't need to have their own special "lady business person" category, but they should be remembered and represented in larger lists.
* In those "40 Under 40" and "30 Under 30" introductions, the awardees are not saddled with a clumsy theme involving objects that are laden with sexist stereotypes or connotations.
* In general, the individual profile pieces on the women are nice reads. They get into their work, their mission, their stumbles, their volunteer/board service and more. The add-ons of "She likes to cook and play card games with her loving husband and children" should be cut because they have no bearing on these women as professionals, but ok, whatever. But these profiles generally don't include anything about the shoes (ex: , http://bit.ly/2bpnFJ5, ex: http://bit.ly/2bljObN, , ex: http://bit.ly/2aZz4id). From a "Yay, business lady!" perspective, that's good, because the shoe thing is tripe. But 1) the STLBJ isn't carrying the shoe theme throughout the entire package, and 2) the women are still shown with their shoe photographs. This is all confusing for readers who may only have seen the shoe-happy introductions, who may have stumbled upon one of the profiles without the shoe narrative introduction or for anyone who just may wonder "Why is that award winner holding a shoe? How girly of her and unbefitting of a leader."
* The above bullet is compounded by the fact that the women's profiles are hidden below that long introduction about shoes. You have to "click for more" to get the list of names of the award winners. Thus, it's difficult for the profiles -- the meat, the whole reason these awards even exist-- to take center stage the way they should. One of the reasons people are angry about the shoe narrative is because it's what's the most visible. It's obscuring the many major accomplishments of these women.
* Sexism is a problem. Misogyny is a problem. For whatever reason, when people say call these things out, there is pushback and/or disbelief. The same people who call for exploration of systemic, institutional racism and ingrained biases don't find it necessary to use the same thoughts when it comes to the treatment of women, and that further contributes to the problem. We need to talk about this -- in our newsrooms, in our businesses, in our schools and in our lives.