When Men Manage Women – At Women’s Websites

When Men Manage Women

— At Women’s Websites

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When men are at the helm of a woman’s site, strange things can happen. In today’s click-hungry climate, it can get even weirder. Rather than focusing on “empowerment,” which many of these digital communities claim to be doing, they are seeking “viral” click bait, often at a woman’s expense (think: 10 Ways Women Can Snag A Man). I write this piece because not long ago I found myself rebuked by male superiors for standing my ground, letting them know I didn’t feel comfortable writing a story that put women in a shameful light, and they weren’t too happy about it.

Think back to when Bryan Goldberg founded Bustle in 2013, the Internet was replete with commentary — and, for the most part, with good reason. Here was a man who saw major success with his money-making sports site Bleacher Report, tapping into the women’s audience by claiming Bustle was doing something different, something innovative. Because he said so. And because he knew so much about women’s media. In his words, Bustle was: “Creating an amazing blend of content — one that puts news and politics right beside fashion tips is what will set us apart.”

It’s safe to say we can all say haha to that. Plenty of women’s sites had actually been doing that for a while, but because a man said it — well — his word is gold.

Simply put, Bustle became fantastic publication run by intelligent, creative, clever women. They’ve published me a few times — and they’ve published almost all of my incredible colleagues, women who write beautifully and with heart. I am proud to say I’ve published with Bustle.

Still, there’s something that irks me (and I’m not alone) about men running women’s publications — even if Time Warner (which is women-run) invested in Bustle. It isn’t that a man isn’t capable, creative or interested in parity — there are plenty of fantastic men out there whose digital media savvy cannot be denied — but I’m not talking about the bigger picture; I’m talking about the real day to day. What happens when men literally manage women at a women’s website? What happens when men aren’t just up in the high tower, and instead are making the micro decisions that affect headlines, images and column themes? What happens when they’re in the room with you on Slack throwing out opinions — without listening to your point of view … about women’s content … despite you being a woman. And they being a man.

In short, if men aren’t aware of the awkward issue here, it’s going to cause a problem — an imbalance that can hurt the brand — whether women want to speak up or not.

So who am I to say so? Working as an editor for a women’s lifestyle website has always been part of my wheelhouse. I feel a responsibility toward creating original content that women need and want — content that shows women aren’t just token consumers or aren’t summarized easily with a brushstroke buzzwords.

Mostly, I just want to work on writing that means something and pushes for more. This is why when I signed on as an editor at a woman’s website during its relaunch — headed up by two men, one directly ‘managing’ me — I found myself wondering exactly what my place was.  I was asked to help build the brand, to hire writers, to create empowering content for women. I’d previously edited at Hearst, where I worked closely with the editors of their digital brands: Marie Claire, Woman’s Day, Cosmopolitan, etc. So, I’d learned a lot about women’s content and I’d seen what worked, what didn’t and learned what I could do better as an editor and curator of voices.

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But in my new role, there was very little in the way of strategy, and the strategy that was in place was built by a man. This would have been a welcome challenge — strategy excites me — but there was also very little dialogue around how we — the women on staff — could really add to the direction. There was no real space for our input, despite the elephant in the room: we were working for a women’s website.

The concerns expressed through the brand’s Facebook page and on post comments told a clear story, too: maybe the readers were a bit sentimental about change, but they wanted something that inspired them. They didn’t want a replica of what worked somewhere else, where women weren’t the predominant readership.

I mean, the Internet may have a formula, but people aren’t robots. Women aren’t robots! If a man wants to bring his experience to a woman’s brand, awesome. But he has a responsibility to ask women staffers what they think. How they feel. What they’d do differently.

…the Internet may have a formula, but people aren’t robots. Women aren’t robots!

So when I was asked — by my male boss — to write an article for women (about men) that I felt was dis-empowering and predatory, I said no. I asked if I could write said article from a satirical point of view, but I was told no again. I offered my insight, but it was disregarded. I later saw that someone wrote the article  — which, of course, did not perform well.

In short, I was seen as anti-authoritarian in my attempt to open dialogue. After all, the editor managing me hadn’t worked in women’s content, but he was taking orders from the guy above him (who had not either). It was comedic, actually.
I believe that we need to encourage an equal exchange in order to balance the playing field, but it’s no secret that power, oppression and internal bias figures into gender dynamics, especially in the workplace, where you can’t simply say “no.” “No” comes with plenty of consequences: you can be fired or you can ruin your reputation.

I also talked about this with Joanna C. Valente, who is an editorial assistant for kveller.com — a women’s website. Valente said that she thrives under female leadership. “It’s not that men can’t work and write for women’s magazines, but I do believe women should be taking charge of the content management and editorial direction. I don’t think it’s discrimination if men are still hired in both junior and executive positions, but I also do believe with any organization with a mission, that mission should be driven by people who understand and live it.”

The company and I parted ways — and I’m grateful for that painful dose of reality. I can now speak with other women about my experiences and warn them about the signs of a sexist workplace. I can now see what to avoid in my future. If men want to head up a women’s publication, then women must be encouraged to help steer the brand. It is our experiences, our voices and our ideas that will ultimately connect with readership. Not to mention, teams with women are shown to thrive.

And while Goldberg might have caused a loud stir on the Internet, Bustle is largely headed up by incredible women who built something amazing. So, there’s no perfect formula. There’s no perfect anything. But a good first step is to let women take the ropes.

It isn’t a threat. It isn’t a declaration of war. It isn’t even that men can’t work in women’s spaces. But we must be louder participants — not props for the men who call the shots. After all, as our friends at The New York Times said, “having a seat at the table is very different from having a voice.”
Lisa Marie Basile

Lisa Marie Basile is a the author of APOCRYPHAL and the founder of Luna Luna Magazine and Community. Her work can be found in Bustle, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, The Establishment, Huffington Post and more. She’s been profiled in BuzzFeed, The New York Daily News, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls — along others. Lisa Marie Basile holds an MFA from The New School.

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