Although women make up more than half of the U.S. population and 48% of the workforce, gender bias, wage gaps, and underrepresentation in leadership persist.
Those disparities are what initially motivated Laura Walker, president and CEO of New York Public Radio, to start Werk It, a women’s podcasting festival, three years ago.
“I read a research study done on the top 100 podcasts on iTunes in 2013,” says Walker, “that indicated that (only) 20% had either a woman host or woman cohost, meaning 80% had just men in them.” Walker says she wasn’t totally surprised but was dismayed. Women have been historically underrepresented in media from the top ranks of news media jobs–-men occupy 73% of management at more than 500 media companies globally–-to being in the news itself. The most recent report from the UN Secretary General found that female subjects in print, radio, and television have increased only to 24%, up from 17% in 1995. When women do make news, 46% of those stories serve to reinforce gender stereotypes, while just 6% challenge them.
So Walker started talking about it with podcasting colleagues as well as Patricia Harrison, the president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Together, they came up with the idea of to host a festival “with the purpose of encouraging and inspiring women to become podcasters.” Walker says that their own research indicated that many women didn’t feel like they had the skills to host or produce, so the festival would serve to teach what was needed to create podcasts, not just for public broadcasting, but for the commercial sector, too.
Werk It debuted in 2015 as an invite-only event open to 85 attendees. The following year they opened it up to applications and took 100 of the more than 700 who submitted. This year’s festival happening October 3-5 in Los Angeles was opened to all who registered and was closing in on 600 attendees at press time. The bootcamp and sessions are designed to put professionals and newbies in the same space and let them connect and get inspired. Brittany Luse credited her attendance at the first Werk It festival for helping her make connections that led her to cohost of Gimlet podcast “The Nod.” Before that, she and her cohost were producing their show “For Colored Nerds” alone and didn’t know anyone else in the space.
Another goal Walker says they set during the first Werk It Festival was to see that half of the iTunes top 100 podcasts had female hosts in five years. “It’s now 33%,” says Walker, “that’s really encouraging.”
Podcasting in general is enjoying a moment. The percentage of podcast listeners in America has substantially increased over the last decade and now 4-in-10 Americans ages 12 or older report being listeners, according to Edison Research.
As for those produced by WNYC, Walker says there’s been an “explosion number of downloads. When we started it was around 12 million or 14 million per month, it’s now 35 million per month.” Walker notes that nine of the 20 podcasts in WNYC’s current portfolio are hosted or cohosted by women.
But there are challenges inherent in the medium. As Walker observed in a previous interview with Fortune, “You know right away whether it’s a woman or a man, so you’re very aware and you sometimes can tell where they might be from or what perspective they have.” This visceral experience of hearing someone’s voice and its quirks and cadences can trigger a listener’s unconscious bias.
Walker says that “every single person needs to think about narrative style” when they are doing a podcast and authenticity is important. “It is intimate, it is in your ear,” Walker explains, as if you are talking to a companion or a friend. Which is why it’s not necessary to strive to be more like a professional radio host and edit out vocal fry or uptalk.
“There are some women hosting who are distinctly authentic in their own voice, they embrace their femininity,” says Walker. Pointing to Anna Sale, the host and managing editor of “Death, Sex & Money,” Walker says, “She doesn’t do it in a hostile or male way, but from very personal perspective.”
Walker also points out that podcasting can give permission and license to storytelling for women of color. She notes how Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the black women hosts of “2 Dope Queens” who have come in with their own personal life stories. They are “particularly strong, owning their own narratives and also letting others in,” she says, recalling one episode in which Williams talked about getting tested for breast cancer in a way that was relatable to any woman. “You both can be worrying and pacing the floor and feeling her pain,” she explains. In all, she says, it’s a celebration of “the storytelling that is authentically female.”
One of the best outcomes of the organic growth of podcasting, Walker maintains, is that it’s enabled a diverse community. Looking at iTunes, Walker says, is one of the few places you can go type in anything and find a podcast about it and it’s free. As such, it’s enabled podcasters like Manoush Zomorodi, podcast host of “Bored and Brilliant” and author of a book by the same name, to grow an engaged and dedicated audience. For instance, Zomorodi challenged her listeners recently to do a 5 day digital detox with her. “I think 40K+ people signed up to do this,” Walker notes.
What was really interesting, says Walker, is the way that it drew in the audience after the challenge. Some listeners (both men and women) got invited in to talk about their experience. As the audio and production technology becomes more available and accessible, Walker believes that more women will be able to host their own shows and have listeners engage as a shared community.
She ultimately sees the Werk It festival as a small, but growing force in the movement to push this kind of storytelling and listener engagement forward by teaching more women how to do it better. “Observations of this world should be more diverse,” Walker contends, particularly “during a year in this country where women’s voices are under assault.”