Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism


Alexis Okeowo: My name is Alexis Okeowo and I'm a staff writer at the New Yorker and I'm also the author of a recent book, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.

Kerry Donahue: How do you define sexual harassment?

Alexis Okeowo: I define sexual harassment as unwanted, inappropriate behavior or communication from someone who's a colleague or a friend or a stranger. Any kind of behavior or communication that is inappropriate or unwanted.

Kerry Donahue: And do you have a slightly different definition in the workplace when you're doing your work as opposed to being a woman in the world?

Alexis Okeowo: I think I have the same definition of sexual harassment whether it's in the workplace or outside. It’s feeling uncomfortable because another person, whether it's a man or a woman, is making comments or exhibiting behavior that are sexual in nature and unwanted or inappropriate. I have the same definition whether I'm at work or not at work.

Kerry Donahue: I don't know where you’d like to start, maybe it could be the first time you remember talking specifically as a journalist when a source got weird on you? Or if there's something else that jumps to mind. You're welcome to start the story wherever you feel most comfortable.

Alexis Okeowo: One incident that I've been thinking about lot lately was a couple of years ago. I was reporting in central Nigeria and I was working with a fixer there. We were reporting on the Boko Haram crisis, and we wanted to interview the military. So we went to the military headquarters and one thing that I really wanted was to go on a ride-along with some soldiers because they were offering access to some of the remote villages where I could see what Boko Haram was doing in that area.

And so we ended up making contact with this one officer in the Nigerian army and he ended up talking to us and offering a chance to ride along with him and spend time with him in the field. And, when I was leaving or maybe it was at some point during the meeting, he wanted to know where I was staying in town. And I kind of hesitated but I told him, "I'm staying at a certain hotel." I think even my fixer offered it up. And then we exchanged numbers, which I didn't think anything of because that was just something you do with sources.

And then I got back to my hotel later that night, and he called me. And it had nothing to do with work. He just wanted to know how I was doing and what I was up to, and so I hurriedly got him off the phone. And then he called again and he wanted to know what room I was in and I didn't want to tell him, but I was worried because he's a military officer. He could easily find out from the hotel. And he kept getting in touch and I started getting worried and I told my fixer. I called him and I said, ‘I'm actually kind of freaked out about this guy, he knows where I'm staying, he can easily find out the room I'm in…’ And my fixer kind of brushed it off and said, "Oh, he's a member of the Army, it'll be fine, he's not going to do anything." And I just stayed in my room, nervous.

So that was one incident when I felt like I was being harassed and I didn't know what to do about it.

Kerry Donahue: Did you have to see that man again? Did you have to engage with him again professionally?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah

Kerry Donahue: And how was it when you had to go back to talk to him again?

Alexis Okeowo: Well my fixer and I met up with him, I think it was a day or two later, to do the ride-along. Luckily when I met him again he wasn't as aggressive in person, maybe because I was with my fixer. I was uneasy around him but I still had to talk to him, still had to interview him. Luckily I was leaving town not long after, but it definitely rattled me.

He was someone I was relying on for access and for information and who I still had to interview. So I couldn't just tell him off or tell him to get lost. I kind of had to negotiate this relationship even though he was going over the line.

Kerry Donahue: Yeah. That happens a lot. Do you have any early memories when you were more in the baby journalist kind of way, as people say? How or when did those lines get crossed?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, I'm thinking about when I first graduated college, I interned at a newspaper in Uganda, and in many ways it was a great experience. I was a junior reporter, I interned with great senior reporters. A lot of them were men, and being in that newsroom was like a constant negotiation of the relationships with these older men who at times would try to mentor me and try to show me the ropes, but then at the same time would ask me out to dinner and to drinks for meetings that were more than just professional.

And so, these are my superiors, these are my colleagues who I'm trying to learn from and a lot of times I would just laugh it off and say, "Oh you know I can't do that" or make up a boyfriend or anything I could think of to get them to stop asking me to do these things, while also maintaining a good relationship. I realize I suppressed a lot of that because it was something I normalized -- that despite this being professional, they're asking me out to dinner even though they're twice my age and have families.

It was a constant negotiation during those ten months that I was in that newsroom. And after a while most of them got the hint, but it was something new to me. I was just coming out of college, I hadn't had that experience, dealing with inappropriate professors or anything like that.

Kerry Donahue: Did you end up talking to other women in the newsroom? Like if once they stopped asking you out maybe there was a new person in the newsroom. I think it’s sometimes that culture. And how to sort of alert each other -"Be careful of that person." Any of that going on in that newsroom at that time?

Alexis Okeowo: Well, actually, I had women telling me to be careful, women who had been there before. The Ugandan women I was working with said, "Be careful of that guy" or I remember there was another young woman who worked in the newsroom and talking with her about some of these guys and her just saying, "Yeah, this is what I have to put up with, but here are the people who are safer to deal with and who aren't." She was a valuable resource during that time ... it was a situation that was very toxic gender-wise. There was no kind of recourse to deal with it, to reform it.

Kerry Donahue: Are there any other incidents that you think about when you think about this? Because I want to ask you a question -- what you think that is damaging about those- the way that steeling yourself against those kind of imbalances you're saying, but, but I don't want to rush to it if there's any other story that you want to share.

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, I remember very early on, maybe this was my second year working as a journalist - I was a stringer for a French news agency and it was around the time of the Kenyan election in 2007, erupted into chaos, and I was called to work in the newsroom in Nairobi. It was a very exciting time for me to be in the headquarters there and I got to do a lot of interesting stories. And towards the end of my time there, before I was going back to Uganda, I heard from a colleague in the newsroom that this other reporter I worked with had told everyone that the reason I was getting these assignments was because I was sleeping with my boss. And I was just shocked. But I realize I was angry and upset because all of this great work that I thought I was doing, that my boss said I was doing, was now tainted in some of my colleagues’ eyes because they thought I was sleeping my way ahead. A man I worked with was spreading rumors that were damaging and that, in a way, were harassing because they affected how I thought about myself and about my work in that context.

Kerry Donahue: Yeah, and also in the sense that the only way you as a young woman could be succeeding was if you were being given favorable treatment somehow, based on your gender and your sexuality.

Alexis Okeowo: Exactly.

Kerry Donahue: Right, which leads into that question, what's the challenge for women reporters in those moments? What’s at stake beyond our physical safety?

Alexis Okeowo: I think our self esteem, our confidence in our work. Our sense of self is damaged when we encounter sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the field with our sources, with people we work with. It's already tough enough being a woman, working abroad, working on your own, just because you're more vulnerable to violence, more vulnerable to harassment. And so to already have those risks and then for that to be compounded by harassment can be very damaging. I think it's a lot to place on a female journalist who's just trying to make her way.

Kerry Donahue: So it sounds like you've done most of your reporting abroad...

Alexis Okeowo: Mm-hmm

Kerry Donahue: Do you think the cultural differences are trickier? Different cultural norms that you're navigating as a woman, and then as a woman doing her work?

Alexis Okeowo: I think that there are certainly countries that are more deeply patriarchal, where harassment is more tolerated and more out in the open. But I found that, as a reporter, when dealing with sources, whether it's abroad or in the States, there isn't much difference in terms of dealing with gender dynamics.

Kerry Donahue: You gotta be on guard for it regardless of where you are. Even if the culture is presenting as more patriarchal, it comes out as more of an interpersonal thing.

Alexis Okeowo: Exactly.

Kerry Donahue: How do you keep yourself safe? What are your tactics or strategies for dealing with these situations? Maybe it's something that you don't even think about that you're consciously doing. What do you do to keep yourself safe?

Alexis Okeowo: Some of the ways that I keep myself safe are, when I'm picking a fixer or a translator that I'm working with, I try to go through recommendations from journalists that I trust, often female journalists. I love to work with women but it's not often possible when I'm working abroad, so I like to work with men who’ve worked with journalists I know and who've not been creepy or predatory. But even then, I've learned to keep a distance in my relationships with the people I work with.

Because sometimes when you're working with your subjects or with your fixers or interpreters, you do tend to get pretty close, especially if you're in volatile environments. But I've realized that there still needs to be some kind of distance and I don't usually like to become Facebook friends with them at first. I've had one of my translators comment inappropriately on some of my photos so I've learned from there not to become friends on social media, at least at first. Not to let them come up to my hotel rooms usually, and when I'm staying in hotels, making sure that I'm picking a room that is both accessible to the front desk but also sufficiently apart from it, a place where I feel like I have a good escape route or where I just feel like I'm safe. And also making sure my colleagues and friends know where I am and who I'm with.

Kim Wall was a friend of mine. We weren't close, but I admired her a lot. And, after she was killed, not in even the most dangerous place she's ever been to and killed by someone who was well known, who I assume she had the expectation that he would be decent to her, it made me rethink a lot about how I do my work, about where I'm willing to meet sources, about who I'm willing to trust because so much of what we do is placing trust - at least some amount of trust - in people we don't know, and trust enough that they won't hurt us.

And so now it's making me think about where I'm meeting sources, what kind of precautions I should be taking before going on interviews because I would have done the same thing Kim did. I would have gone in that submarine. And what kind of things as female journalists we are able to do to protect ourselves more. I don't know if there's much because I feel like Kim did as much as she could and still, this man killed her, so I don't know, but it is making me think a lot about precautions.

Kerry Donahue: Speaking of that, what would be some advice you would give to young journalists starting out, young female journalists?

Alexis Okeowo: I would tell young journalists that despite the fact that women are vulnerable in this world, that they shouldn't be afraid. They should still go out and write. That's still the best way, to go out in this world and find stories, and tell them. I do think there are a lot of ways now though to learn how to keep yourself safe, whether that's hostile environment training or First Aid courses.

Also, what has been a great support network for me is having female journalist friends who I can talk to and ask for advice, and we compare notes and look out for each other.

And so I think that young female journalists should still go out there and do what they want to do, but just try to look out for each other.

Kerry Donahue: What do you think our profession can do? And the question "we" may be defined differently to discourage sexual harassment and unwanted behaviors. This may have different answers for workplace and out in the world. But what do you think we could do to protect women journalists?

Alexis Okeowo: I think there are two things with regards to protecting women who suffer sexual harassment. I think if those women are in a workplace and it's coming from colleagues or superiors, workplaces can actually be proactive and punish men who are doing these things to their colleagues.

And I think that for women who are out on their own, whether it's freelancing or doing an assignment in the field, I think that editors can be aware this happens and be a receptive ear to it, being able to listen to the troubles a woman might be having in the field with her sources, with her fixer, and not use that as an excuse not to send a woman out into the field, but actually be a resource, be someone she can call or rely on if she's in a tricky situation.

Kerry Donahue: And if you had a broad ability to change the cultural differences, what would you want to see?

Alexis Okeowo: I think for women to do their jobs without any harassment, it requires such a fundamental cultural shift, which is for men to realize that women are not always available to them, for men to realize that women are just not there for them to use or to enjoy, that women are their equals and to treat them as such.

Kerry Donahue: I think a lot of people, this is my guess based on my own experience, I think a lot of people think, "Well, you're an attractive young woman, it's just going to happen, it's sort of human nature. It's the dynamics between the sexes." And I think back to imagining you going home from work at the end of a day where you've had to once again tell your much older, married boss like, "Buddy, no. I'm not going to dinner with you."

Alexis Okeowo: Right.

Kerry Donahue: I just think about what it feels like. You just talked about a network of women. It's always good if you can call someone. But I think there's a real toll there.

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah.

Kerry Donahue: For you as the individual.

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah.

Kerry Donahue: In that sense of both anger, frustration, and how you navigate that kind of feeling of injustice that you have in those moments. What's the toll? What does it cost women when that happens?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, I think there is a toll. I go home and I'm tired, not just from the day, but from dealing with someone who I respect, but who I realize doesn't respect me as much as I do him and feeling frustrated that this is still the dynamic of our relationship even though we've gotten to know each other.

I feel like he's gotten to see what I can do, and that I'm excited about my work, but at the end of the day it's still reduced to this dynamic of, "Come out with me and then let's see what happens." As opposed to, "Let me teach you more about our trade, the work we're doing. Let me show you something interesting about a story I'm working on." And realizing that I wouldn't be in this situation if I were a man, and feeling kind of bitter about that, too.

Kerry Donahue: Yeah, did it hasten your wanting to get out of that newsroom, too? Or is it just you want a natural trajectory out?

Alexis Okeowo: Well, after a while I just stopped dealing with them.  I asked to either do my own stories or work with some of the other women in the newsroom. Who knows, maybe I lost out from not being able to learn from ... For example, one colleague I knew who I was so impressed with, he had worked in war zones all over Africa and I was so impressed with him, but I just learned I couldn't deal with this guy. I had to forsake what could've been a learning experience and go somewhere else.

Kerry Donahue: Do you think men need to be part of this conversation?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, I do think that men need to be a part of this conversation because what we're asking for, what we need, is a fundamental shift in how men behave, and how men relate to women. Not just in journalism but in general. And I think that it's great that women are coming out and telling their stories of dealing with these experiences and we can all connect on that, but at the same time, we're not the ones who need to change. We keep learning ways to protect ourselves more, but how much self protection do we need to learn before we address what is causing us to feel afraid or feel nervous or feel like we're not safe.

I think that's the primary issue here. When I'm thinking back on my experiences, it's my source's fault. It's my colleague's fault for this behavior. I didn't encourage it at all so, how do we talk about that? And I think that's why including men and asking them why they're either exhibiting this behavior or they're watching it and not doing anything about it is necessary, because it's often one of the two.

Kerry Donahue: Some of these stories that have come out, like there are a couple in public radio, and others happening in Hollywood too, where women opt out. They basically go through something much more explicit, not violent necessarily but maybe, and they decide, "This isn't the profession for me."

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah.

Kerry Donahue: And I think that the women we lose from that, the talent that walks away because someone else defined that experience for them.

Alexis Okeowo: Exactly.

Kerry Donahue: There are probably mothers of young women who hear Kim Wall's story and think, "My daughter can't be a journalist."

Alexis Okeowo:  Exactly.

Kerry Donahue: "Nobody is safe, anywhere you know?"

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah.

Kerry Donahue: So, I don't know if you have any thoughts about that. Like for the women that have to leave because of this?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, I do, and I think about the stories and the work that we've lost because of some man who, through his behavior, pushed them out. And then I also think about how so much of the stories in our public culture have been shaped by men who we know to have been harassers or people who abuse women or bully them and how their stories take up so much space.

I think back to the time when I first started in journalism and women who I knew who were freelancing who, for various reasons, dropped out, and I think maybe some of those reasons relate to this.

Kerry Donahue: Are there specific things you do to protect yourself?

Alexis Okeowo: I don't meet people in my hotel room. I don't take sources to my hotel room or fixers to my hotel room anymore. I'll meet them in the restaurant or ask for a meeting room in the hotel. I often try to work with women, but that doesn't happen a lot.

But I'm also used to going to people's homes. Because I don't know where else we would go. I mean, if we are going to be talking about a sensitive issue, you can't say, "Oh, let's meet at a restaurant.”

Kerry Donahue: You mentioned bitterness of having to do all this extra work and it taking this toll. How do you manage that bitterness? And how do you put it towards something productive and not let it eat away at you?

Alexis Okeowo:  I think finding the joy in the work is what keeps a lot of us going. It's what keeps me going, because even when dealing with a creepy source, or someone who just makes me wonder why I'm doing this kind of work, it's the actual story I'm trying to tell that gets me through it. I think finding that joy, finding that richness in reporting is what keeps us going despite all this.