HOW NOT TO BE SEXIST: A Checklist

Journalistic guidelines for how to discuss women in the public arena do not yet exist. But my research shows they’re needed. Here is what I propose.

HOW NOT TO BE SEXIST_ A ChecklistHave I fallen susceptible to a common gender trap, like an overfocus on family life, qualifying achievements by associating her with men, equating emotion with weakness, or a dispropo.png

On an micro level, reporters must ask themselves:

Have I fallen susceptible to a common gender trap?

  1. focusing on a woman’s domestic or familial life rather than her professional merit (“Hillary Clinton: Grandmother-in-chief?,” CBS)

  2. qualifying a woman’s achievement by associating her with powerful or familiar men (“The ‘Female Obama’ Tries to Be Just Familiar Enough,” Bloomberg)

  3. dwelling or speculating on female emotions and equating them with weakness (“Taylor Swift used her relationship drama to rack in some serious cash,” @marieclaire)

  4. spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing how a woman looks or sounds (“Ariana Grande belts Aretha Franklin standard in tiny dress,” Business Insider)

Further reading: Five ways the media hurts female politicians — and how journalists everywhere can do better


Is the focus of this story fair and in good taste? Is it going to be important several years from now?

When choosing a topic or a focus, it’s important to consider: Journalists are the ones writing the history books.  This gives journalists a responsibility to always make sure they’re covering the most significant and impactful happening at any event.

As a former editor for the Spokesman Review, Addy Hatch used to ask her reporters:  “What is going to stand the test of time? Is this story going to be important 3 years from now?”

Amy Kovac-Ashley, director of newsroom learning at the American Press Institute, echoes this call for thoughtfulness when choosing a story’s focus.

“What conversations are happening when these stories are being generated?” Kovac-Ashley asks. For example, when discussing a story last year about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, Kovac-Ashley asks, “Did anyone in the newsroom say, ‘Why are we doing this story? Is this really an important story for us to be doing? Why are we doing this about her but not looking at menswear?’ Was there a compelling conversation that happened before deciding to do the pantsuit story?”

How could this topic or my language be perceived? Am I writing with empathy?

Journalists must put themselves in their readers’ shoes: Would they consider this portrayal fair?

“For some writers, there is a lack of thinking about both sides as the creator of the content and the consumer of the content, which can lead to misrepresentation or oversight,” says Ashley McCallum, a local reporter at the Janesville Gazette.

Pay specific mind to physical descriptions of female characters.

“I think there is a tendency when you want description in a story and you’re talking about a woman, you describe her clothes. Or her hair,” says Ann Fiore, editor of The Janesville Gazette. “But who cares? If you apply that to a man, nobody really does the same thing with men.”


Are the voices in my story balanced? If not, is there a particular reason why?

“Look at your story and think, ‘Who have my sources been?’” says McCallum. “Sometimes you write a string of stories and you realize you’ve only talked to one kind of a person. …Look at whose voices you’re representing. Is it a mix? Is it representative of your community? If not, why not?”

Sue Bullard, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also calls for balance of voices and perspectives.

“We need to see women quoted more often in news stories,” she says. “Women doctors. Women accountants. Women professors. Too often, studies show, news stories are dominated by men.”

“And not just as victims,” Fiore adds. “More female sources would be helpful, even if you have to try to go out of your way to do that. … We have to look harder.”


If I’m asking a question of a woman, would I ask this same question of a man?


Intersectionality: If I’m asking this question of a woman, would I ask it of all women, including those of a different race or sexual preference?

These dueling headlines show how inconsistently critical the media can be when it comes to covering white women and women of color. / Source:  Sambrano Times

These dueling headlines show how inconsistently critical the media can be when it comes to covering white women and women of color. / Source: Sambrano Times


Have I given thought to stereotypical portrayals?

Portray individuals as closely hued to who they are as possible, paying specific mind to stereotypes.

“Instead of using descriptive language … stereotyping gets done almost as a shorthand,” Kovac-Ashley says. “Because we’ve done it for so long, we don’t really think through how perpetuating those stereotypes … reverberates throughout the rest of the society.”

Consider the origin of thoughts.

“There are assumptions about the way that gender roles are supposed to be … that affect everybody,” she adds. “Progress takes place only once you start bucking whatever that assumption is.”

Consider sources as complex individuals, full of nuance and life experiences. No one person is the same.

“We have to resist the urge to extrapolate or create a group persona based on an individual that we hear,” says Kovac-Ashley.


Have I used any gendered language? Can I find a way to add more gender-neutral language?

When using gendered language, like “you guys” or “mailman,” journalists runs the risk of alienating half their audience.

“How can you become more inclusive?” asks Kovac-Ashley.

For starters, she says, use the correct pronouns.

“When you’re talking about binary gender issues, there are people who are trying really hard to use the correct pronouns, and you’ve seen more of that in news stories now than you have in the past, with people starting to ask questions like, ‘Which pronouns do you prefer?’” she says.

Further reading: How to Avoid Sexist Language in Article Writing

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On a macro level, journalists must:


Examine and question the demographics of your individual newsroom.

Adding more diverse voices in the newsroom will have a ripple effect on the language coming out of that same newsroom.

“Diversity is not only the work of minorities or women,” says Kovac-Ashley. “It is everyone’s job because it’s everyone’s job to portray the world as accurately as we can.”

Sue Bullard shares a personal experience that rings true for many:

“More women need to be represented in newsrooms and particularly in the top ranks of newsrooms. When I became the editor of a small newspaper in Michigan in the early 1980s, I was the first female to do so. But things haven’t changed all that much since. Even though the majority of journalism students are women, that’s not reflected in newsrooms,” she says.

Understand the demographics of your community.

Journalists must work to ensure that the voices in a story are representative of their community.

Think about this stuff before a bad example happens.

“I don’t need a bad example to happen to make it important,” says Fitzgerald. “I don’t wait for something bad to happen. ... It really starts from the day you walk in the door, whatever group you’re leading.”

“It’s harder to be retroactive than it is to be proactive,” says McCallum.