Forging ahead

Reuters correspondent Allyn Fisher-Ilan weighs in on the current challenges female journalists face today, and what needs to be done in order to move forward.

The Thompson-Reuters building in Canary-Wharf, London (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Thompson-Reuters building in Canary-Wharf, London
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last year, Facebook Chief Operations Officer Sheryl Sandberg released Lean In, a book advocating for female empowerment in the workplace. In it, she wrote, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
Allyn Fisher-Ilan, who serves as a correspondent on Israeli and Palestinian security and economic affairs for Reuters, can certainly attest to that constant push and pull Sandberg refers to in her book.
Specifically, she is all too familiar with the struggle a woman inherits when she takes on a role that demands long hours, little pay and high pressure.
Last week, in a bustling coffee shop one late Jerusalem evening, she spoke about her career, the obstacles women face when trying to progress professionally and what can be done to obliterate (or at the very least reduce) these challenges.
When Fisher-Ilan first moved to Israel, it was on the heels of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historical first visit to Israel in 1977.
It is against that pivotal backdrop that she quickly saw the fertile material Israel could provide for an aspiring writer with a love of history and politics.
It helped, of course, that her Long Island childhood home was a Zionist one that fostered a love and pride for the Jewish state.
After a few short months as a translator for the Government Press Office, Fisher-Ilan firmly cemented herself in the journalism world when she became a correspondent for the Associated Press for 12 years. When her husband enrolled in a fellowship in New York, Fisher-Ilan briefly found herself back in her home state, but quickly jetted back to Israel. This time, though, she joined The Jerusalem Post.
When speaking about her six years at the newspaper where she served as the first female night editor and website managing editor, Fisher-Ilan opens up about navigating a workplace as a woman in a role that commands authority and respect.
A night editor is responsible for choosing which stories get placed in the paper, and oversees a team of graphic artists and copy editors each night. On a smooth shift, it requires focus and strict time management.
On a hectic one, it demands calm under intense pressure.
When asked about what it was like to be the first female night editor, the fact that she held such a distinction caught her by surprise.
“Oh, I suppose that’s true. I didn’t even think about that. But yeah, there certainly weren’t any other female night editors when I was there,” she says.
As the first woman in the paper to hold that authoritative role, because of her previous professional experience in the field, she felt surprisingly little pushback. “I had the respect of enough people through my previous work beforehand, so I think that probably helped overcome any obstacle there might have been,” she explains.
She acknowledges, however, that had she worked for an Israeli organization, attitudes may have been different. “Well, I think the whole macho culture and the difficulties women have in having positions of responsibility in Israel was a little different in a place like The Jerusalem Post. I mean, there were senior female reporters [at the Post], even if there weren’t in editorial,” she says, referring to veteran Post reporters such as Liat Collins and Judy Siegel, who were the Knesset and health reporters respectively at the time.
“When you think about it, The Jerusalem Post was out there,” she says thoughtfully.
Yet she does acknowledge that Israel is far from an anomaly when discussing the gender gap between men and women in Western society.
“Israel is pretty much on par with a lot of the world when it comes to women progressing or not progressing as the case may be.
For the most part, it’s not really progressing enough.“ Sure enough, a recent Knesset report corroborates this sad fact: the recent study by the Knesset Research and Information Center indicates a 15-percent hourly wage gap between men and women, a statistic that is on par with the EU.
So, what can be done? According to Fisher-Ilan, women should “expect more.”
She recalls an incident where a male colleague was taken off of his beat and asked to be an assistant editor. The colleague dismissed the notion out of hand, saying “he did not go to journalism school to become an assistant.” Management listened and agreed to give him a position acceptable to him, despite the hiring freeze at the time.
“I thought about that [incident] and it really struck with me at the time,” she recounts. Many women start off in such administrative positions and then move up the ranks without giving it a second thought.
“Men,” she explains, “start off as training reporters or whatnot and that’s something that I suppose women could insist more on, but it’s not easy because it’s not only up to what we do. But the system needs to change its attitudes.”
Another problem holding women back is a lack of self-confidence and being self-critical about their own qualifications. There’s no room for such second-guessing in a field like journalism, where “you learn journalism by doing,” she says.
She also suggests that women need to learn to “push.” She points to her own experience at the Post, where she expressed interest in the night editor position after copy editing and asked management to move positions. “You don’t necessarily have things handed to you on a platter in this world.”
She acknowledges there are constraints women face that men may feel less acutely. Although she sees positive signs of change today, she specifically points to the need for organizations to be more flexible with working mothers who must balance work and home.
“Women should insist that this is something that’s important, and should set certain conditions.”
All these recommendations, of course, are the tip of the iceberg.
While undeniable progress has been made in the past decades, a systematic change is needed in order to rectify this global problem, she argues.
A couple of years ago, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton addressed a delegation from the Women in Public Service Institute at Wellesley College. “The world cannot miss out on the talents and contributions of half the population,” she said.
It is in everyone’s best interest, then, that we get cracking and try to tackle this all-important problem.