Board member blog post: Young women need JAWS to make it to the top

Gwyneth DolandBy Gwyneth Donald, JAWS Board Member

One of the assignments I often give my journalism students at the University of New Mexico is to write a resume and a cover letter. I admit it’s an easy assignment for the end of term when both students and professors are swamped with work. But it’s a practical exercise for them that also shines a distant twinkling light on the inequalities we see among journalists in newsrooms across the country, where management and the higher end of the pay scale are still dominated by men.

These classes are small, so I like to have the students read their cover letters aloud. It only takes a few for a pattern to emerge. Some are humble, but many of the young men in my classes boast of their awesome interviewing, their brave investigative skills and their powerful writing. It’s a painful contrast to many of the young women’s letters, which modestly describe their skills and ask so, so politely for a chance.

I can’t believe this is still happening! But it is. From what I can tell, the difference in the way they pitch themselves in the letters has little to do with their actual skill level. So what is it? Why do young women undersell themselves when they’re looking for work? You already know. It’s how we—parents, teachers, employers, TV and everyone else—have taught them to act.

Yes, I know there is research showing women are punished for being as aggressive as men when interviewing for jobs and negotiating for salaries, but the problem I see is young women who aren’t even close to fairly representing themselves. If we don’t teach high school and college women how to fairly present themselves for the job market they’ll never catch up.

After they read some of their letters we talk about them, about which letters are the most persuasive and best showcase the writer’s talent and experience. I say to them: Folks, you’ve all been through most of the same classes together. Many of your experiences are very similar. Now that you know what you’re up against, would you like to rewrite those cover letters?

We workshop them in class, and go through example after example of how to take a slim resume full of mostly volunteer work and internships, and turn it into a demonstration of professional awesomeness!

I always think of JAWS when I do this exercise. It reminds me of how far we have come, how far we have left to go and of why I’m so committed to our plan to get there.  Our mentoring, training, support and advocacy are what it will take to put today’s young graduates at the top of the masthead—or whatever it is that’ll be around next year.

Gwyneth Doland is a freelance writer and professor in Albuquerque, New Mexico.