In recognition of Women’s History Month, three Boston University journalism professors share their journey — both highs and lows — as women in the field.
By Thalia Plata
Each March, the National Women’s History Alliance announces a new theme recognizing Women’s History Month. This year, the theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” which honors “women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.”
In a 2022 global report of 240 news brands by the University of Oxford and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, researchers found that only 21% of the top editors were women, despite the fact that, on average, 40% of journalists working at the brands studied were women.
Despite facing systemic obstacles such as sexual harassment and gender and race based pay inequality, through their storytelling, women journalists have challenged dominant narratives, shed light on previously overlooked experiences, and paved the way for future generations.
In this Q&A, Boston University journalism professors Anne Donohue (COM’89) and Tina McDuffie and College of Communication Dean Mariette DiChristina (COM’86) share their journey as women in journalism.
Mariette DiChristina is the dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. A nationally recognized science journalist, she was the first woman to head Scientific American since its founding in 1845.
Anne Donohue is an accomplished journalist and public radio producer who currently serves as an associate professor of journalism. She’s been recognized and honored for her work on topics such as women and AIDS, women’s reproductive health, and the treatment of women and girls in the developing world.
Tina McDuffie is an associate professor of the practice of journalism. An award-winning & Emmy nominated television-radio reporter, McDuffie is the host of the Local, USA series on WORLD Channel Network, a national half-hour news documentary program.
What does storytelling mean to you?
Mariette DiChristina: Storytelling is part of being human. Stories are how we make connections, foster cooperation, share insights, and help knit our culture together. Stories are enlightening, inspiring — and fun.
Tina McDuffie: Storytelling means I take the responsibility to introduce an audience to someone, someplace or something they otherwise may not know — and do it in an interesting and engaging way.
Anne Donohue: It is the way we understand the world. Stories are essential to our lives. They engage us in a way that a pile of statistics or a Wikipedia entry cannot.
What story/stories about women are you most proud to have worked on?
McDuffie: Any story I have ever done where a viewer, listener or reader can say ‘I learned something” is a proud moment for me. The experience of meeting someone new and walking away enlightened is a rewarding experience.
DiChristina: I loved interviewing Elizabeth Blackburn about her story at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. As a woman in science in the male-dominated research landscape of the 1970s, Dr. Blackburn decided to study telomeres — the protective ends of chromosomes — and she did so in a microorganism called Tetrahymena, aka “pond scum.” Later, she and Carol Greider won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying an enzyme that regulates telomeres’ growth, a discovery with many medical implications. Dr. Blackburn famously supported other female scientists in her labs — and even me. A year after I’d interviewed her, I was on a bus in Davos telling a seatmate about this amazing interview I’d done with Dr. Blackburn when I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Mariette, that was a great interview because YOU did such a wonderful job! You are a great journalist!”
Donohue: So many. One was a walk in a park next to Tokyo Tower where there are hundreds of ceramic statues adorned with hand-knit hats and blankets, children’s toys and teddy bears. It is the Garden for Unborn children. The “jizo” statues represent abortions, miscarriages, and stillbirths. It was eerily quiet except for one young woman who was crying for her aborted fetus. She told me that no child is unwanted and we all will face difficult choices in life. She said she’d be a better parent when she was older and married.
Do you have a female role model or mentor who inspired you to become a storyteller?
McDuffie: My mother, Regina, who always encouraged my curiosity.
DiChristina: My mother, who told fabulous stories to her three daughters, was an early inspiration, as was my female science teacher in eighth grade. At the time, women were uncommon in science. But because of the model of my science teacher, I didn’t know that. As a result, I never felt there was any barrier to whatever I wanted to do as a woman.
Donohue: Again, so many. A high school English teacher, Miss Burke, taught me how to write. She was a ruthless editor and I thank her every day for the time she took to whip us into shape. I hope my students understand that editing is an act of dedication to the love of writing, very time-consuming, and not punitive .
What challenges have you faced throughout your professional career, and how have you worked to overcome them?
McDuffie: I have definitely faced racism and sexism as a Black woman. They often manifest by being underestimated by bosses and even colleagues. There is too much to type but one way to overcome a challenge of someone else’s bias is to keep being excellent. Don’t get in the mud with anyone — meaning remain professional, gracious & focused.
DiChristina: So many challenges! My biggest was when my Scientific American editor in chief left, and I applied for the job. We’d just had a big downsizing, having lost one third of the editorial team. We had been absorbed into a new company, and my brand-new boss was thousands of miles away, in London, and had never been a supervisor for a consumer magazine. And the company had hired a consultant whose reputation for making dramatic and painful changes was making the team very anxious. My husband was working part-time, to take care of our young children, and the mortgage payment was looming. I decided that the one thing I had control over was myself. I realized that I just needed to do the job of an editor in chief to the best of my ability. Then, even if I didn’t get it after all, I could always look myself square in the mirror and say, “I did my very best.” I had the equivalent of an eight-month job interview, and finally became the first woman editor in chief of Scientific American since its founding in 1845.
Donohue: SO MANY. Lots of nasty and lecherous male co-workers (but most men have been wonderful co-workers) being underpaid, juggling work and family. In every workplace I have advocated for women, helped establish the first job-share at one news organization, lobbied for equal pay at BU (and ended up with a legal agreement for a year of back pay). As I retire, I mentor scores of young women to help them navigate the workplace.
What advice do you have for the next generation of women storytellers?
DiChristina: I know it’s hard to believe in yourself sometimes, but you’ve got this! Follow your passions, put the time in, be persistent, make friends, and do your best. Those things will take you far.
McDuffie: Be confident and comfortable in your own skin. Be a person of high character. Character will keep you in places where talent cannot.
Donohue: If it is your passion, do not quit. Persist! If it isn’t your passion, find a path that makes you happy…and pays you fairly.