Women Feel the Emotional Weight of Telling Our Stories

Earlier this year, Source published a piece I wrote that was framed as an open letter to hiring managers. It documented my six-month journey in finding a job after being part of the massive layoffs at Fusion.

As we were nearing the end of revisions, my amazing editors, Erin Kissane and Lindsay Muscato, asked me how they could support me after publication, and we discussed how to handle negative feedback. I had read enough pieces by women to know it probably wouldn’t be easy. I was gearing up for comments about my performance, my focus on gender, my gall to publicly discuss my experience.

When it published, I was working on a two-week assignment for Poynter in South Africa teaching journalists about digital strategy. I knew it was set to publish on June 8, and I anxiously awaited for America to wake up and read what I had poured my heart into.

The likes, retweets, and comments poured in. I received exactly one negative comment: a man told me that the gender pay gap wasn’t real. I ignored him. That was it. My piece was shared in industry newsletters, on Marketplace, in a podcast.

As my story was amplified, I received more and more private messages from women who had similar experiences. After two days of comments and messages, I cried myself to sleep. I had started this conversation, but, it turns out, I wasn’t really ready to participate in it. Hearing these stories was emotionally exhausting. I was sad for these women, sad for the industry I love, and ultimately, sad for myself.

I didn’t feel like I had triumphed or that my piece was something to celebrate. I was and am still dealing with a lot of pain. I didn’t take being laid off personally; a ton of extremely talented journalists were let go at the same time. But it did hurt when they posted my job again. It hurt when organizations would use ideas from my required proposals without hiring me. It hurt when hiring managers would question my age or gender. It hurt when my applications were ignored by acquaintances in the industry. I felt frustration, rage, disappointment, and discouragement. I often felt like a failure.

I replied to every private message and almost every comment about my piece. I thanked them for reading. I apologized that they went through something similar. I advocated that we needed to fix the industry’s problems. My replies were short, because even though I had been thinking about this since November, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t effectively comfort others because I was still comforting myself. I now know why people write memoirs years later.

I spoke about hiring at the SRCCON conference a few months after publishing my piece. It had been about nine months after I was laid off; I had just started at the Wall Street Journal. As I chatted with people during breakfast and in between sessions, I was shocked at how many people said, “I recognize you from your article about hiring!” They told me they loved my piece.

This attention was unlike anything I had received before because it wasn’t about something I was proud of. I loved talking about the work my team did; I would brag on them any chance I had. But I was at a loss of words when someone complimented a piece about what had happened to me. I mustered a superficial, “Thank you for reading. I’m so glad to see the response.” and tried to move on to another topic.

The response truly blew me away. I did not expect that much support or that much noise raised. I heard some teams were using it as they were refining their hiring processes, and if even one journalist has a better experience, it will be worth putting myself out there. But we need to go bigger, too. We need to get these stories into the hands of CEOs, executive editors, anyone that can truly make a difference.

Throughout the journalism industry, we ask women to be brave a lot, both as colleagues and as sources. We ask them to share pieces of themselves that tell important stories. We should not stop doing this; these are stories that should be told. But being the voice of many is a vulnerable experience, and we have to support women when the personal goes public.

As friends and colleagues, we must be nuanced in our responses. Unless the new job after a layoff is an absolutely perfect fit, it may be bittersweet. We must be understanding that transitions take time, a job offer does not solve everything, and change can be really hard even if it’s exciting. We must vocalize that going through a difficult time does not make you a bad journalist who isn’t cut out for an industry that can be cruel. We must co-own the heavy responsibility of these stories and advocate for change ourselves. In my case, this is the difference in putting your name on an email to HR to question policies vs. telling them to get in touch with me.

We have to do everything we can for these stories to matter so that hopefully, one day, these stories won’t exist.

Rachel Schallom is an editor specializing in digital strategy and visual and data journalism. She’s the newsroom project manager at the Wall Street Journal. She curates a weekly newsletter highlighting interesting things happening in visual journalism. She has been an adjunct professor teaching coding for journalism students, has spoken at national and international conferences, and is involved in making journalism a more equal place for women to work. You can follow her work on Twitter, Facebook and at rachelschallom.com

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