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The internet without a woman

Can silence and absence be loud in a digital space?

Photo by Lauren Goode / The Verge

Today is the Day Without a Woman, a general strike initiated by the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington “in recognition of the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socioeconomic system — and the pervasive and systemic gender-based inequalities that still exist within our society.” It’s the latest in a series of strikes aimed at protesting the policies and sympathies of the Trump administration, preceded by last month’s “Day Without an Immigrant” and the massive New York City bodega strike organized by Yemeni business owners.

That’s why I’m not at work today. I don’t think what I’m doing totally counts as striking — I told my manager ahead of time that I wouldn’t be coming in, both because Vox Media asked me to and because I work on an all-female team that I didn’t want to dump my work on without warning. (They’re all striking, too, it turns out.) I’m still going to log on to write if I see news about the strike itself that I want to cover. But those decisions were stickier than I expected: striking as a woman in an online space is not necessarily very visible, and striking as a woman in journalism means leaving all the talking space to the boys for a day.

Women’s work in journalism — and especially in online media — while no more “important” than women’s work in any other sphere, is harder to reveal via absence. In a digital space, where often the only visible signifier of gender is a byline (not a reliable indicator, and in any case probably skimmed over), the question of how to be visible by leaving is pretty murky. So I asked women at all levels of dozens of online publications if they had thoughts on how to make this day a true statement, and what they felt their personal responsibilities were.

in a digital space, the question of how to be visible by leaving is harder

Many hard news sites have ethics policies that forbid public political activity like protesting or striking, which means some substantial number of women will be online today by default. But of the women I spoke to (I reached out to around 60 directly, and received responses from about 20), most felt empowered to make their own decision about the day, and didn’t bring up fear of backlash from their employer. Only two said they feared jeopardizing an upcoming raise, or making a bad impression on a new manager. That, obviously, is one of the ways in which a strike like this exposes fault lines of privilege within the feminist movement. (Many of the women were quick to acknowledge that reality.) In education, health care, and nonprofit spheres, just to name a few that rely primarily on women’s labor, the result of women not showing up might be too catastrophic, possibly hurting other women and children the most. In areas like food service, retail, or domestic work — shift-based occupations that are also dominated by women — there is far less likelihood of a benevolent employer tolerating an unexcused absence, and far fewer have the luxury to jeopardize payment. Women who work in media, particularly those employed full-time, are probably safe if they choose to strike. In the case of my workplace, we’ve not only been encouraged to strike, but to hand our male co-workers anything we want to see published today.

More simply put, journalists face comparatively low risks if they participate today. That’s nice for individuals, but takes away at least some of the symbolic power of the collective action.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

One of the biggest questions women posed back at me was along these lines: for us, what counts as a strike in the way the word was intended? Should we stay off of Twitter, a major backchannel for discussion around journalism, politics, culture, and all the issues we write about? Should we avoid publishing new work so our absence is visible? At The Verge, our editor-in-chief expressed support for the strike and asked that we inform a manager and request the day off through our HR site. Vox Media has an unlimited vacation policy, so this isn’t a punishment, but it still undercuts, in a key way, what a strike is: a refusal to work that’s meant to raise visibility by seriously inconveniencing institutions.

An editor from a major digital news outlet who wished to remain anonymous told me via Twitter DM that she doesn’t feel women in media need to take the strike 100 percent literally in order to participate: “[Today] isn't about not doing any work whatsoever, it's about not doing work you don't want to do. Maybe that means not showing up to work and not doing any writing — but if you like doing those things (I do), maybe it's just refusing to book conference rooms for men when it's not your job, refusing to take notes in meetings, refusing to smooth over interpersonal office issues created by men because ‘you're good with emotional stuff.’"

My co-worker, senior reporter Adi Robertson, is one of the few women at The Verge who is at the office and working today. But she’s still participating in some way: “The women's strike is supposed to make women visible through invisibility, and however small my contribution is, I feel like I'm in a slightly unique position to signal-boost that effort by covering it.” Similarly, Mashable’s deputy managing editor, Alex Hazlett, said that her site will be shuffling news shifts to cover for women who plan to strike or attend protests, adding that many want to “still be involved in the coverage and attendant conversation.”  

men wrote 62 percent of the stories in the country’s top 10 newspapers

Lots of women told me they were wary of leaving that conversation for the day. Just last week, The Hollywood Reporter published a roundly criticized cover story about how “the future” of media at CNN is the vision of five men. (Only one of them was even a reporter.) Though things are undoubtedly improving for women in journalism, with concerted efforts toward gender parity slowly becoming the status quo, it’s a cold reality that the media is a boys’ club. The Women’s Media Center published a report in 2015 showing that men wrote 62 percent of all stories in 10 of the country’s highest-circulation newspapers the year before. Women produced only 37.3 percent of news for broadcast, print, and digital outlets taken together, and women and men were heavily segregated by subject matter. For example, women wrote only about 10 percent of sports news, 33 percent of criminal justice news, 35 percent of science news, 35 percent of political news, and 38 percent of tech news.

Freelance journalist Lux Alptraum, in a phone call with The Verge, pointed out, “If all the women in the MTA strike, the MTA grinds to a halt. If all the women in media strike, it’s only men writing.” She also questioned whether removing women’s voices from the media, even just for a day, is useful: “Not to say that a general strike is a bad idea, but it’s more complicated in an industry where women’s voices are often ignored to begin with.”

An anonymous senior editor from another publication told me, “We’re so used to hearing male voices that I don’t think it’ll register that on this day it’s only male voices. Put more simply: a mass protest or strike is a way of giving yourself and your values a platform. Journalists and people in media already have a platform — it’s literally our job to have a voice. When most women [outside of the media] step away from their jobs to join the protest, they’ll be doing it so their voice will be heard. If you’re in media and you step away from your job, your voice is silenced.”

Britt Aboutaleb, the editor-in-chief of Racked, told me via Slack that she wouldn’t be striking, but that she remained cautiously optimistic about the effect the strike would have. “I’m not particularly thrilled by the idea of scrolling through a sea of men’s bylines [today], should it come to that, but I am sort of thrilled by seeing just how integral women are to keeping it all going when they are so visibly absent.”

“I’m not particularly thrilled by the idea of scrolling through a sea of men’s bylines.”

Aboutaleb also said that while she didn’t think any of her staff planned on striking, she made it clear to them that they should feel free to do whatever they believed was right on strike day. Recode executive editor Kara Swisher told The Verge that she and editor-in-chief Dan Frommer have made the same clear to their staff, as did Curbed editor-in-editor Kelsey Keith. Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt published a public letter about the issue: “The women at Eater outnumber the men about two to one. The majority of our bylines are female. The majority of the editors are female. I haven't gotten a strong sense from my team that they want to skip work on that day, especially because, to some, the silencing or their voices could lead to the amplification of mens’… That said, I'm encouraging whoever wants to stay home to stay home. And whoever wants to work should work.”

Other sites with a largely female editorial staff said they would be striking, interpreting their responsibility to their readers as solidarity, then amplification in the days following. Jezebel editor-in-chief Emma Carmichael told The Verge that her site “will be operational [today], but will be written and edited by men of Gizmodo Media Group who want to help the women of the site stand in solidarity with the strike.” She also said that women writers at the site would file stories about the strike the following day. Jezebel staff writer Ellie Shechet said, “There was never really a question that we would be participating in the strike in some way and building this week's coverage around it, so it wasn't really a fraught decision in the way it might have been elsewhere. None of the women at the site will be blogging or filing stories that day, but technically, most of us will be working — I'll be reporting on the ground, likely covering the march, and publishing something on Thursday.”

Shechet said her only hesitation about the strike was around the idea of “striking without a measurable end-goal,” but also noted: “It’s an important opportunity for women to remind the country of our economic and social value, since the people in charge of running the country right now really seem to struggle with that concept.”

“It’s an important opportunity for women to remind the country of our economic and social value.”

Stella Bugbee, the editorial director of New York Magazine’s The Cut, gave a statement explaining that her site would be “going dark” and “publishing no new content for the day.” The Cut’s editorial plan she said, is to re-promote content about relevant issues, accompanied by a note to readers explaining that choice “to strike as a sign of solidarity with women everywhere as we face the potential rollback of fundamental rights.”  

Bustle editor-in-chief Kate Ward has also published a public letter explaining why her site won’t be publishing today: “there's no time like the present to prove just how important ... women's voices are to the world — to media, to business, and beyond.” Kate Barnett, president of the fashion, culture, and humor site Man Repeller, said she’s made the day an optional paid day off for her 99 percent female staff. She added that Man Repeller will suspend all its normal publishing in favor of prewritten stories that contextualize the strike. “As one of the few women-owned and operated media companies, and particularly given our focus on community and the fact that 90 percent of our audience identifies as female, we're publishing a piece on why we're going dark, what that means to us, and opening the conversation up to our audience to discuss.”

Other sites focused on women, like Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Marie Claire, will reportedly publish as usual, but pay special attention to the strike and coverage of women’s political issues.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The question of whether removing women’s voices from the internet will help or harm today’s cause probably does not have one clear answer. For sites like Jezebel or The Cut, where the staff and readership are both predominantly women, striking is a show of solidarity with the power to go both ways. Silence will be visible, though you could argue that it will be most visible to people who are already following women writers and being attendant to women’s issues.

For tech- or sports-heavy sites, where removing women’s work for the day restores an antiquated status quo that many readers wouldn’t have any problem returning to, the remaining editorial staff need to make a conscious effort to highlight women’s voices in other ways. SB Nation editor-in-chief Elena Bergeron told me, “Women have touched every part of the sports we consume, and if women did not participate, you might not have, say, an NBA labor agreement, deep reporting about the effects of concussions on NFL players, or a functional Lakers organization.” So her site will fill in for striking employees by “resurfacing work that has covered women of note recently, all to underscore that sports would stink without women.”  

Polygon’s Julia Alexander is striking from her job as a reporter in the gaming sphere — the piece of the internet that’s been arguably the most fraught for women in recent years. “As women at Polygon, we're able to critically examine a story or aspect of a game that our male co-workers might gloss over,” she said, explaining why the seven women on Polygon’s editorial team are all striking today. “[We’re] striking to prove to both our audience and ourselves just how important our roles are. It can be easy to forget, and we shouldn't."

It makes sense that this question of platform and voice is crucial to women who work in the digital space. We’ve grown used to having our work shouted down by the industry, by anonymous online trolls, and sometimes even the people we work with. Women, who receive the bulk of online harassment, are also aware that some men on the internet will celebrate their absence publicly. On Reddit (the only major social media platform that doesn’t have a female majority user base), there’s already a thread in the Men’s Rights subreddit featuring such astute observations as "You know why men go under-appreciated for everything we do? It's because we don't organize things like this." At The Verge, our site-wide gender balance is good, but a day without women means no science section and only half our culture and transportation sections — with a robust tech section remaining. If our site is mostly tech coverage written by men for the day, there will be hundreds or thousands of readers — many of whom my female co-workers and I hear from every day — who are thrilled.

Jezebel’s Emma Carmichael says she understands concerns about turning the internet over to men, but counters saying, “I think that relinquishing our collective voice on the internet for a day isn't so much about granting male voices more of a platform or less contested spaces, but about contextualizing the implicit value women bring to a workplace (or, in Jezebel's case, a rhetorical space) every day. Just as much as I hope women who participate in the strike get something out of the experience, I also want the men who have to step in to perform their labor or fill their roles to think about what's being asked of them, what parts of it are hard and uncomfortable… I'd argue that whether or not the internet feels ‘different’ or ‘lacking’ [today] would be a modest sign of the strike's success, not a sign of failure or concession.”

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

“I have never hesitated for a second about participating in the strike,” New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino told The Verge. “I'm also covering it,” she added. “Since minimum-wage workers and immigrant workers have so often led the way in terms of this type of demonstration, the tiny amount of solidarity I can demonstrate [today] seems like the least I could do.”

Though women from various parts of the internet have differing and often conflicting ideas on the best course of action today, everyone I spoke to implicitly agreed that whatever we choose matters and that the choices were ones worth weighing and re-weighing. There will be opportunities in the next four years (and beyond) to refine our process for making bold, collective statements online (and off) Of that, we are nauseatingly sure. And however today’s strike affects national discourse, it’ll be a learning experience — yet another in a string of recent events that has compelled those who care about the fate of their country to face activism’s challenging conversations.

To end on a lighter note: Rebecca Jennings, an associate producer for Racked, floated me one idea in an email. “Perhaps among journalists, it's the men who should take the day off and participate in some form of activism. A day with a woman-only internet sounds extremely chill.” Just one free thought for another day.