Women in the journalism industry often face a number of unique challenges throughout their careers. Even while navigating their own career paths, many women still go the extra mile to make space for others and create a more equitable work environment.
In this conversation, she shares her experiences working as a foreign correspondent in a male-dominated field, why she founded the Coalition, and what the journalism industry can do to better support women, especially women of color.
This conversation is part of our Women in Journalism series, which you can read more of here.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field?
I always wanted to be a journalist, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be because my dad wanted me to study science and engineering. I was born and raised in Pakistan, where I started my career. When I was seven years old, I got my first essay published in the paper. It was basically a guideline on how to have good handwriting. I used to write on the blackboard when I was a kid and that was one of the things that I did to improve my handwriting. I wrote an essay about it, and the local paper published it, and since then, I have just been writing small stories for the local children’s paper. It was the only English newspaper in Pakistan, called Dawn Newspaper. It’s prestigious, like the New York Times in Pakistan, if you may. So it kind of started from there. I studied economics and math and statistics, I have a double Master’s in math and economics. But I was about 15 and a half, 16 when I got my internship at the paper, and then, I went through college and university, I was working in the media as a journalist. I worked in print, radio, and television. By the time I was done with my bachelor’s, I was working for a leading news channel as a producer. I think that I was born to be a journalist.
The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What appealed to you about the business of journalism?
Absolutely. I think that’s a very good question. And you’re asking that question because you’re in an environment where these conversations are taking place, and these conversations are absolutely important. Since you’re at Lenfest, you’d also see that there’s a massive difference between big newsrooms that have the resources and oftentimes they monopolize the small newsrooms, and I think one of the struggles of the small newsroom is who comes in and innovates. If you want an honest interview, I’ll give you an honest interview. It’s bittersweet, and I think it can be more bitter than sweet because we are in a landscape or small newsrooms, local newsrooms, innovators. All of these different categories don’t have the same resources unless you have a big funder, or you have a big donor.
So we are a nonprofit, our business side of it is a huge, massive struggle. I think it’s time to change that in journalism because we have the internet and the internet has changed a lot of dynamics. What has happened is that eventually, the big newsrooms have still had the resources to transition in a better way than smaller newsrooms have, like hundreds of small newsrooms in America. I’m in Vancouver right now, but we are based out of New York. And I know that hundreds of newsrooms, if not thousands, in North America have shut down, they’re folded. I just had a conversation with someone in a Canadian newsroom who is afraid that their newsroom is going to be shut down by big organizations … so the business model is complicated. It’s hard to understand. I’m a journalist, I’ve spent 20 years doing journalism. I used to be a foreign correspondent and then became a war correspondent, and I started this organization to change things for women. But little did I know, that I’d be confronted with the great economic challenge of being able to run the newsroom that we are trying to run and you know, and then it has to do with both things.
Business can be great if you have resources right? It’s important like say gender is a big issue. So, you can do fundraising and you can find resources. But then again, what is happening is that this comes to donor responsibility. When we are talking about nonprofit newsrooms, one of the most important things that I assume you also come across a lot at Lenfest is, the big donors need to know the importance of supporting smaller newsrooms, innovators, and disruptors, etc. The problem is that the big donors don’t. They’re not doing great. They’re not, they don’t care. They don’t spend enough time and they want smaller newsrooms to be perfect, as perfect as the big newsroom is — that’s impossible. But then if you keep on giving money to the bigger ones, you won’t invest into the smaller newsrooms who are changing things, who are connected to the local community, who have relationships with the local community, and so on. So inevitably, big donors. If you make a flowchart, you will realize the most prominent thing is that what is the solution for this suffering of small newsrooms? It is the donors putting the money in the right place. My advice would be that big donors or small donors need to put in money if they’re spending $200 on a big newsroom, they should spend equal amounts into smaller newsrooms.
It’s a struggle and I will tell you that I know a lot of women, I know a lot of people who start these projects like they want to change things in journalism. I started this because I wanted women to be counted, women to have the resources when they are targeted. I want everyone to know how women are being so when we look at press freedom globally, I want the world to know where are the women in that equation, where are the women on the frontline, where are the women who have resources, where are the women who don’t have resources, how are women covering these power governments targeting the women, etc, etc. While telling that story, we need to have the support of donors who care about this work, and we know we don’t, we don’t have a lot of that support.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?
There are so many people who inspire us in different kinds of ways. I think sometimes when we are younger we’re looking for one inspiration, but what happens in life is the real answer to those questions, and sometimes you find different people who inspire you for different things. You will find people who’ve done it themselves. I would say I have a lot of people who have helped me navigate a lot of the things.
Women have not been equal. Let me just give you a little bit of background. We started this because this organization was formed after I had covered a lot of parts of the world. I’ve lost some friends. Some of them are journalists who were targeted and killed, and some of them are friends and colleagues who I made along the way covering wars who were killed in the wars. At one point, I kind of broke down, and in 2015 I had panic attacks, and I ended up in the hospital. This was also a time when I was getting threats from Pakistani intelligence agencies. So there was a lot going on and all of that trauma kind of got bottled up in the body.
I ended up in hospital as I felt like I was going to die. And then I asked myself this question. I am a journalist who sacrificed a lot for my career, but not only the career to tell the stories, like I said, I was born to be a journalist. Nothing could stop that from happening. I was brought up in a very difficult and unequal environment for women, first in Pakistan and then as a foreign correspondent. Oftentimes, if not all the time, I was often the only woman of color and one of the very few women on the frontlines covering conflicts without a Western passport — All these layers of complication. I transcended a lot of things, and then I couldn’t transcend certain things. Years before that I had worked at the New York Times, and I had some good friends with Pulitzers and women who were older than me and had decades of experience before I did, and what I wondered was how did these women make it. After I got out of the hospital I started talking to these women. In ways they were my mentors, because they illuminated how awful it was for them when they were navigating journalism as an industry. This is before “Me Too.” A lot of the context and language we have today because of Me Too and Black Lives Matter, the racial conversation, the gender conversation is available, we have language to speak, but when I was doing this work and trying to put it together at that time, people did not have that language. All women told me, older women, [was] that they never had it easy, they always have to be cutthroat. They never had support. They never had mentors. Isn’t that crazy?
I really salute those women, and one of them is on our advisory board. I’m indebted to a lot of the women who did speak to me, and it also went into me figuring out what I’m going to do to solve this becaus I was like, “No way, I spent time traveling the world, seeing the world fall apart. I am not going to stop.” These inequalities affect me and women like me, and it was very clear back then that women did not get the resources and we had a lot of difficulties. I think things are really better in the last few years, things have really improved in journalism. I won’t say they’re entirely improved because they haven’t.
I would say women never had mentors who were women. Until very recently, women did not find mentors, and oftentimes you will talk to women, and they tell you, “Well, I had women who were mean to me rather than helping.” That is why we started the mentorship program, because it focuses on mid-career women journalists, because women who spend a few years in their career that’s where they get trapped. We did a survey. We spoke to 101 newsroom editors and reporters in Canada, US and Mexico, and we found that 62% of women journalists after 4 to 5 years of their career had a plateau. Mainly, they did not have mentors, they didn’t have a support system and sometimes they got harassed, they got discriminated [against] and that affected their performance. Not only that was a hurdle, [but] the stress of being discriminated [against] and having to navigate a typical newsroom would get them to perform less efficiently than they could.
A difficult newsroom can turn into a health safety issue, a mental health safety issue, and that really affects women on a bodily level. Our mentorship program essentially targets that group, the 4 to 5 years after. The first very important thing to notice [is that] women, for the longest time have not had mentors, which is why you would always see this demand there in the industry that women should be cutthroat and they should be thick-skinned. Well, the thing is that women are designed soft, we have other skills, we’re soft, you’re emotionally smart. We have other things that we can do. And I think that an equal playing field means that women should have the opportunity to work and navigate the industry without being cutthroat.
The reality is, women don’t always have the resources equally available. There are lots of opportunities, fellowships, and mentorships, but it will never be the case that all women from all backgrounds will have access to them. That’s something that we are trying to change. We literally look for women who are not on the top of the industry and most connected networks so that they can have access to something. One of the realistic things I want to point out is that for those women who don’t have it, you don’t always need to have a mentor to guide you. There’s so many resources available. I would urge all women who are trying to be a journalist, or an editor, or a mentor, or someone who wants to innovate and change things in the industry, that they can take inspiration from the material available online and don’t ever get bogged down if they get rejections. Rejection is one of the number one causes of demotivation and can also be mentally stressful for a lot of women. Women should go find mentors and people who can root for them, but if they don’t, no problem. They can take inspiration from the work that is available online.
In addition to that, sometimes you also have to be your own cheerleader. That also goes a very long way. The truth is that I have been my own cheerleader a lot of the times, and I’ve had cheerleaders. But to be able to consistently do this work, the kind of impactful work we do oftentimes, there will never be a possibility for everyone to be available at all times. So you have to be your own cheerleader.
What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?
I would say I’m just pretty impressed by how I have handled everything. I think that I’ve handled a lot of different situations very nicely. I’ve been impressed by my younger self. If I was to advise my younger self, I would really just say keep doing, keep going. You’re doing fine!
When you spend 20 years in your career, a lot happens. In every country that I covered, I’ve lived different lives, I’ve made friends, I’ve gone through different transitions. My career was not easy. Being a Pakistani woman journalist, I grew up in a very conservative environment and newsrooms that were very misogynistic. My first struggle was to navigate that and to navigate society. The social restrictions in Pakistan — I come from a middle class family and women are not expected to work in the media. So I thought that was my struggle. Then I worked in western newsrooms, and then there were different dynamics there. Because then I was a woman of color, who, even though after 15 years of covering different conflicts around the world and being a professor at a university, I felt like I was not treated equally.
But like every challenge that women face, and people from diverse backgrounds are [facing], today we are talking about it. Just five years ago, we weren’t talking about it, it was much more difficult, because when someone would experience something there was no language for it. They wouldn’t be understood easily. Now we have that language and that channel to speak. We all face challenges in different kinds of ways. The best way to look at them is not to get bogged down, but to look at them as opportunities and think creatively, really, to think, okay, what can be done? Is this a problem? Can I solve this problem? I have to say that I was born to be a journalist. All I wanted to do my entire life was to be a reporter. I started this organization to solve that problem, because I realized that I can not be a reporter if these problems exist.
How do you feel women are represented in the business/development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
I started this because it was a meaningful cause, I wanted to change the industry. But I had no idea there was a business aspect to this. I think that a lot of times women start like that, and then they fail. I know a lot of women who have not been able to make it and they had to shut down and go home. They didn’t get the support, they didn’t get the resources. And that’s awful.
In the industry, we don’t have that kind of intention of making sure that women and people from different diverse backgrounds can have the resources. That brings us back to that [question of] how is business done? Who runs to these businesses? People need to be more aware and mindful of supporting these women and people from different backgrounds. Why? Because they have the potential to change things for the better. They will bring more profitability and better journalism to the industry, if they’re supported properly, because you need innovation anywhere. Look at science, If we had no innovation in science. If you don’t spend money on science, will humans ever make progress?
Electricity was invented. When sound recording was invented, radio, all of this, there was money that went into it that made it accessible to the masses. All of the innovations [were] always done by people who are trying to solve problems. Who are the people who are trying to solve problems in our world? It is people who are seeing some problems, and they’re trying to change. It’s like women like me, and women I know, who are trying to innovate [within] the industry.
Some [women journalists] do have support. We see there are some newsrooms like The 19th or a few other newsrooms that have done well. What brings that support is influence and impact, but people who are at the bottom of the industry or the middle of the industry, they don’t always have that influence. So I think that it brings us back to the donor responsibility to make sure that most projects can be successful, and that they are looking keenly into the potential of having diverse people do the sport, not only the people who have the connections.
In my experience and what I know from a lot of other colleagues is that women are only able to make it work if they have the connections for it. That’s not a great scenario for most women who want to do it. If there was a man running the same organization as I am running, we would not have issues getting the kind of funding that we need to be able to continue our work. We do face a lot of difficulties finding the kind of funding to be able to do the work that we do. The great thing about women is that I think that we are changing a lot in spite of all of those challenges, and in spite of all of the difficulties and hurdles I think that women are fucking smart, and they’re able to find ways of navigating it.
The reality is that I think it is the work of all of the activists, women like me who are trying to change journalism. It is all of our work that has fueled this knowledge that has funneled into the bigger newsroom. I think a lot of bigger newsrooms are taking responsibility, but they’re also monopolizing us. But I think that a lot is changing. When I started my career there were fewer women on the front line. For most of my career when I was a foreign correspondent, I was the only woman oftentimes, or one of the two women out of 10 men who were on the frontlines. There are many more women out there, bigger newsrooms are taking responsibility, and the industry at large is doing much better, including women and women of color in the newsrooms.
I think it’s because the women who spoke out wanted to change things. I think that it’s still really complicated, how women who are breaking those barriers for all other women. I think that the true honest way that this work can be done where the trickle down effect will happen is when there will be infrastructural change in the newsrooms. What are newsrooms doing right now? First of all, it’s appreciateble that now there are more women on the frontline. There are newspapers that have women’s sections, gender sections, there’s more awareness. There are more women foreign correspondents. Right now, as we speak, in Ukraine, Afghanistan, everywhere, there are more women on the frontline. That is fantastic. Why did that happen? It’s because women’s out women in the industry spoke out and that made these big newsrooms accountable.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you (either an age, certain role, or specific instance) and how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and where it’s going?
I think the most difficult time in my career was when I was working in a top newsroom. It was probably a time that was supposed to be a great time for my career, but it wasn’t because I was a woman of color. That is what really propelled me to do the work that I have to do now. Because I think that women or anyone, men too, human beings, we look at, we look at challenges in two different ways. Either we get bogged down, or we do something about it, and we’re all designed differently.
I’ve faced many, many challenges from misogynistic newsrooms in Pakistan, to working in South Asia. I’ve been through a lot of difficult different scenarios, I’ve been called a spy in three different countries at the same time and all of those things. But I think nothing really bogged me down more than being in a great newsroom and not having the recognition and responsibilities that I expected to have. That really changed my mind. I think about the fact that actually being a woman was really, really difficult. I thought I could overcome misogyny and other challenges, but I think that I couldn’t overcome inequality from a place where I expected good values. I think that is what propelled me to do the work that I’m doing now.
I think that’s great in a way, because now we have better times. In the last few years things are better for women. They’re not great, and they’re not the best. But it takes time for us to evolve as communities. Our industry is evolving, and I think it is evolving in a better way. I think people are thinking about the right things. People are thinking about gender inequality, people are thinking about equity, people are thinking about how to best approach people who are different from us. I think journalism itself at large is changing, and it’s representing more of our communities, people who are different from the norm.
Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career? Are there any sacrifices you’ve made that your male counterparts may not have experienced?
I think that things are a little different in the last few years because of that better understanding and because newsrooms now have more women and women of color. The male bosses are doing better. I think that however, when I was there, I did not have the resources and understanding in the industry, which is what made me start this organization. I do think that things are better, when you have more representation, it solves a problem, because then you get to understand all where the other person is coming from.
I wanted to understand human psychology, so I spent a year just studying neuroscience and social neuroscience to understand the human brain. And one thing, one among many things, is that oftentimes inequalities and the problems that exist infrastructurally in society are not anybody’s fault. We’re human beings. And oftentimes, we’re just biological animals, our brains work the way they are designed. Our brains are designed in a way that unless you introduce new ideas into the brain, the brain cannot evolve; it will stick with something else that is more conservative. This kind of reflects that dynamic where journalism itself is evolving, more women are participating, and more people in the industry are open to women participating. And that’s a good thing. Because the more we learn about each other, inevitably, we will influence each other. More women wanting to change journalism and innovating the industry, it will help because there’s more of them and those who are sitting on the other side will learn about them. Newsrooms are getting redesigned in a way, because they’re allowing more women and women of color into these spaces. You certainly see women of color, bringing in context, knowledge, background about communities, languages, tendencies, accents, all of that stuff.
What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?
I was able to be one of the only female correspondents to go to and have access to places where men did not have access to and that was because I was a woman. I was able to interview the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and travel to tribal regions in Afghanistan and down in Pakistan because I was a woman, and … those people who think male journalists are a threat. I’ve been able to have a lot of access to people, refugee areas where only women are allowed, but not to talk to men. I’ve had a lot of access from top to bottom in my career because I was a woman.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
The mentorship program that I designed for the Coalition is very unique, I don’t think anyone else does that. When I was trying to understand how to do the mentorship program, how to make it effective. we found that oftentimes they were not effective, they were not lasting. Unless mentorship really targeted mental health and consistency, it was not going to be effective. That is why at the minimum, the mentorship program that I designed is essentially a long-term mentorship program that connects a mentor and a mentee in which a mentor feels as rewarding to a mentor as a mentee from gaining from the mentor. It’s a relationship where both parties are gaining from each other. It’s more of a relationship that’s beyond being just a journalism mentor and mentee relationship. It’s something that [helps] mentors and mentees connect on a human level, on a personal level. That allows them to build a relationship that is more realistic, more lasting.
I have to say 99% of our mentorships are successful, and have ended up for both mentors and mentees doing great. Mentees have done really great, they’ve become foreign correspondents, gotten awards and so on. I think our mentors continue to mentor many of our mentees because of how rewarding they feel it to be for themselves.
Yeah, so we basically have this thing where we ask our mentees [to become mentors]. Because this was an emotional project, one thing is that I basically made meditation compulsory for all of our mentees. And the meditation app that we use is by another journalist who had a mental breakdown on television. Andhe started an app called Ten Percent Happier, you should definitely check it out.
We have two things that are compulsory, one is that you will meditate if we mentor you, and then you will pass it on. It basically sets an intention for every mentee that they got something from somebody and they can pass it on. And I think all of our mentees are fantastic.
Publishers are looking for new, sustainable business practices given the ever-changing nature of the journalism industry. In what ways, if any, do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism?
All donors, especially the big donors, need to do a little bit more work spending time, especially with those who are trying to innovate and interrupt because innovators and interrupters are the ones who are going to be the instigators of evolution in journalism. Journalism is not going to evolve by big monopolizing newsrooms. Journalism is going to evolve smaller, younger, diverse people are given the resources to innovate and interrupt and change the way it’s always been, and that’s where the money needs to go. If big donors are very adamant to give support to big [newsrooms] — I mean, there’s a reason why donors want to support organizations that are more sustainable and have been there for decades, because of their track record. But if they do that, they need to do a 50/50 formula, where if you’re giving a million dollars to a big legacy organization, then give a million dollars to a smaller innovator that is trying to interrupt and change things that the big legacy organizations were not able to do. Remember, donors need to remember that the reason that the innovators exist is because something is failing, and not that something is missing that the legacy organizations are not doing. I think donors miss that completely. So they need to pay attention to that. There’s a reason why innovators exist, that disruptors exist, and they need to support that.
As I mentioned, we started as a mentorship organization. We work globally and we have chapters in different countries. The reason we started the press freedom newsroom is because when you look at press freedom by all legacy international organizations around the world, women were missing from the press freedom issue. Today, the Coalition for Women in Journalism documents press freedom attacks against women journalists from 128 countries. We report on any kind of violations that take place against women journalists which are physical, so this includes raids, police violence, detentions, deportations, life threats to women journalists. We’ve reported physical violence against women journalists that is happening in large scale and now bigger legacy organizations are following the work that we do. Before we launched, we basically wanted the legacy press freedom organizations to focus on the work and used to send reports through them, but they wouldn’t want to take it. That is why we launched our newsroom because that was missing, the gender aspect was missing from a lot of the coverage of press freedom violations. The work that we do is also forcing a lot of these legacy organizations to follow us. Now everyone’s talking about gender, and that’s because we basically forced everyone to look at that.
Everyone used to think there’s online trolling. Online trolling is one of the issues … but I think gender was missing. People did not understand that gender was a huge issue, and that because they weren’t covering it and there’s so many other dynamics to it as well. One of the very important things that I think should contextualize [this issue] is that when women and LGBTQ journalists get targeted, they don’t feel safe enough to talk about how they’re targeted. In a lot of cases we covered, these journalists did not want to talk about it, but they did talk about it to us because we were mentoring them. That mentorship aspect brought that connection with them, they felt confident talking about what they were facing. I think that’s one of the reasons that we know more about these violations than someone who’s just reporting on them.
I will share a secret and that is that because of technology and because of the internet and because of social media. A lot of the work that we do could only be done by a very strong, well connected and well resourced newsroom, with several million dollars in funding, but we did this with very little funding because of the internet and social media. We have a newsroom in which we have reporters and researchers spread all over the world. We were able to do this work because of technology and the access that technology brings. Our newsroom is well connected, I like to say that we are awake at all times, because the sun never sets on the internet. Ttechnology has connected all of us and given us a small newsroom and the ability to do the same work that a bigger more resourced newsroom can do.
What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What are your hopes for them? What would you like that space to be like?
My one true hope is that all women, Black, Asian, Latina, and white women, all women from all backgrounds should have equal opportunities. And if we are able to fix all of the problems that are existing right now, have representation, all of that, one single thing that I need for all of you guys is that you have the opportunity to be creative, to be able to have minds. What equity and equality does is that it gives you [the chance] to bloom the way you are going to bloom, to be at the best of your potential, to have happy challenges, not challenges that sort of remove you from the equation, but that bring you into the equation.
A representative space where, especially people who were not represented for decades and centuries, get the opportunities and resources to be able to do the work. It’s not just enough to bring representation into a newsroom, it’s not enough to bring women in the newsroom and women of color into the newsroom. What is also important is that you let them do the work that they think they’re capable of.
I will be honest with you, the newsroom that I was talking about earlier, we had a lot of women. I’ve always seen a lot of women in the newsroom — they all work the night shift and they’re all copy editors. We want to bring women into the newsroom in the ways that they want, honor their ambition and honor what they want to do, what they think they’re capable of. If they’re not, they will find a way. It’s okay. Every human being, whether man or a woman or anyone from any gender or racial background, should get the opportunity to confront who they are, rather than the system.
Is there anything else we should have asked and didn’t? What did we miss?
We are standing in the history of journalism and our evolution as an industry. There are a lot of things that we’re tackling: misinformation, inequalities, all of these challenges. We are standing at a precipice of time, where we can go either way. We can either regress or we can progress, and who is going to change that is going to be [those with] the resources. People who have resources and power need to know that they need to support smaller organizations in journalism, women who are trying to change the industry. These women, people from diverse backgrounds, women of color, they come with knowledge and the majority of them are doing very honest work. We have this responsibility to be present in that moment.
I think that my message would be to anyone who has resources and has power to support women from diverse backgrounds who are trying to change journalism and trying to tell us a story. They’re trying to tell us something that wasn’t working before. And if we help them we will be able to fix the problems that have been the problem of our industry.