The Islands Society is proud to recognize Maria Ressa as our Local Female Leader this month. Ressa is currently the CEO and President of Rappler, one of the fastest growing and biggest social news networks in Southeast Asia. Prior to founding Rappler, she led ABS CBN and served as a Bureau Chief for CNN. Over her prolific career, she has worked hard to redefine journalism by combining traditional broadcast, new media and mobile phone technology for social change. Our Managing Director of the Local Female Leaders Program, Keiko Ono, therefore took a moment to sit down and speak with Ressa about the ways in which she thinks that journalism and new media might be able to improve the health and well-being of girls and women in island communities.

As I understand it, you started out in the field of molecular biology. How then did you make the leap into journalism?

I’m Filipino American. When you have Filipino parents, they’ll push you to either be a doctor or a lawyer, which my parents did. So, I was Pre-Med. When I finished everything that I needed to do to get into medical school, I shifted into an English and Theatre and Dance in the last two years. And then I came home. It was 1986 – the year of people power. I had a Fulbright to come back because I wanted to support research into my roots. And, I just never left. What an incredible time to be a journalist! To watch a transformation of a society. After the Philippines, I wound up covering Southeast Asia and every Southeast Asian country – except for Brunei. They all shifted from kind of autocratic, one-man-rule system to democracy. That was a bit of a long-winded answer. But, it was discovery – really trying to figure out who you are. Identity – your place in the world. And, I think the big struggle I’ve always had is how to be true to who you are given different cultures. Where identity and culture intersect – it’s funny. When I’m with Americans, I always feel more Filipino. When I am with Filipinos, I always feel more American. At the end of the day, I do think I get the best of both worlds. As a journalist, that’s the best background you could have. Thinking through different cultural lenses leads to different worldviews.

As a woman, did you find that you had any advantages progressing in your career?

It’s very hard when you’re a woman and you’re Asian American. It is your identity. So, is it an advantage or a disadvantage? It’s part of who you are. This is what I always say. In a warzone, it helps to be a woman. People think it’s a bad thing. But, as a war correspondent, it was good. You know the world has changed since. I was covering the conflicts in Southeast Asia and South Asia. And, that was before social media really took off. I left CNN in 2005. During that time, I think we saw the first violence against journalists. I spent a bulk of my career when journalists were like the Red Cross. They were neutral and people let you in. That changed around the time of East Timor and the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. Journalists weren’t attacked. But, soon after that, we had protective coloration in East Timor. The journalists who looked like Indonesians were able to stay longer and drive in and out of the conflict area of this zone. So, your identity is who you are. But, I think for me it was partly being both Filipino and American. Trying to understand what that means. Being Type A and trying to be the best that you can be. I am a woman. And, I embrace that. I’ve never seen it as a negative thing.

In terms of the ‘glass ceiling,’ did you ever encounter that in media. If not, do you know of colleagues that experienced it?

I’ve written a lot about it. I’ve reported on this during my time with CNN and while with ABS CBN. In my experience, I was in my early twenties when CNN made me a Bureau Chief. I was one of the first Asian Americans to have this role. And, for me it was more the merging of cultures – East and West. When reporting on the Philippines or Indonesia, for example, if you’re a white Anglo-Saxon male, it is a very different perspective from somebody who understands the culture. The Philippines is a country that is easy to make fun of. A joke that I always hear comes from a book written by Stanley Carnell entitled ‘In our Image.’ In it, he says: ‘The Philippines spent 250 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.’ You know, we take Hollywood seriously. Those are our colonisers.

If you look now, the largest newsgroups are headed by women. That said, the funny thing is in our culture, the women still stand behind their men in general. We did a gender-bias advocacy campaign with a commercial partner called #whipit. And, we did a survey that looked at how Filipinos look at men and women. There’s still gender bias. But overall, what it showed us that the women are the ones who limit themselves. One of the findings that I always remember is that, in the national capital region, which is the most progressive area, where most of GDP is in the Philippines, if you have a man and a woman with the same skills and talents, they’re completely equal. 71% of Filipinos would choose the man over the women. But many of the women who have powers say that they actually voluntarily let their men lead. They’re conflicting things. I think gender bias and gender equality is a complicated thing in this world, especially now that social media instantaneously opens this world up. It’s a challenge. And, I think it’s changing values. That’s a good thing.

What is it about the Philippines that has enabled women to reach that point of leading newsrooms? Do you think there are any ‘lessons’ that other countries can take from the Filipino experience and apply in their own communities?

This country is an amalgam of such conflicting things. So, I’m not sure if there are lessons. But, I will say two things. One is it’s still a macho, chauvinistic society coming after the colonisation we had under Spain. But, at the same time, it’s still a very strong matriarchal society. Most of the women hold their families together. And, our largest dollar-earner in Filipino families are overseas Filipino women workers. There are 10-12 million of them who send money home. Their family life is driven by the women. However, those gender roles are still there.

In media, women stick to journalist roles because they’re not the primary bread winner. The pay that you get as a journalist in the Philippines is still relatively low. Comparatively speaking, if you’re smart twenty-something, why would you work for a news group versus a bank or a tech company where you could get paid? Part of the reason why women are drawn to news is its role in society. Because we’re not the primary breadwinners, women can stay through it longer. At least this is what the men tell me.

I always try to keep a gender balance. In Rappler, we kind of joke about that. We try to give equal opportunity to our men. I think it’s why we’re so different here. There is nothing stopping the women from moving forward. But, women walk softly and carry a big stick. That would apply to all women in power in the Philippines.

How do you think your work with Rappler and in media as a whole influences women in the Philippines?

I think it’s been a huge influence! While I was leading the largest news group here, it was primarily male. Not by much. But, it was something like 53-55% male and the rest women. In Rappler, it started out 52% male, 48% women. Now, we see it shifting to more women than men. The women are actually more engaged on social media because they carry their advocacies forward. In fact, I think that beyond the gender issue, technology and social media hold the key to solving major developmental problems that traditional methods just didn’t make a dent in. Last Friday, the UN released the Sustainable Development Goals. If you look at that, the UN said they would try to end poverty in the next fifteen years. This is the first time that I believe that is possible because we can see it. We can see it in our society in the Philippines.

There are three developments that make that happen. The first is Internet. Connecting everyone really makes a huge difference economically. It ends economic, social and political exclusion. The second is the mobile phone. When you have a 114% penetration rate in the Philippines, you end financial exclusion, right? If everyone can actually use their mobile phone for trade, for commerce, for a farmer to find out where their market is – that’s incredible. And ,the third thing is the data. How can you use that data to empower the bottom of the pyramid? I think it’s possible. For me, it’s not just about getting rid of these stereotypes between men and women. I think we go way beyond that with the technology. That’s here and that’s part of what’s built into Rappler. I think you’ll see that we’re far more than a traditional news group. We do this because we come from the Philippines – where institutions are weak and we can now harness the zeitgeist of people for a better society. Combine that with top-down government work flows. That’s what we’ve done with climate change. We’ve done it with a lot of different issues. And, it works!

These technology advancements will help countries like the Philippines and Indonesia more than national development. What makes Rappler different is that we grew out of our communities, out of our societies. And, we know that we can use media. I think the new role of journalism is we’re not just a Fourth Estate. We provide information that is credible to communities to create communities of action. If we can harness those communities of action, we can make our world better.

What advice would you give to young women who are wanting to enter journalism?

I say this all the time to young journalists. Again, it’s not just the world of journalism but our world right now. It is going through this incredible period of creative destruction. It is like the age of industrialisation all over again – except the impact is exponential. You can have an Uber disrupt taxis. Instead of linear growth, you have that exponential hockey-stick growth outcome. l mean, look at AirBnB. These companies don’t even own assets in their main industry. Why can we not redefine journalism to give it and make it more powerful? We will lose traditional gatekeeping powers. But, if we embrace our communities, journalism becomes even more powerful.

So, my first advice is: learn technology. That really is it. You know, today is my birthday. And, the funny thing is my age group – my generation – is kind of missing out. The success of Rappler is because we’ve incorporated our millennials into strategic thinking and strategic workflows. In order to succeed today, you have to understand the way the digital world works. Every business is an Internet business. And, you have to figure that out.

I think that if you’re in a school that is teaching you traditional journalism, start doing it. I think that’s the other part. You don’t have to wait to be employed to be a journalist. You should already be doing it before you even get out.

So it’s technology and it’s understanding who you are so you become clear on what your values and your priorities. This is no longer a world where your organisation will give you these things. I think the world of journalism is moving outside of the formal environment that I grew up in. It is moving into this world where it’s more like pointillism – where journalists inside the organisation carry their own individual values and collectively that becomes what that organisation is.

The last part is embracing community. You need to know who you are and what you stand for and what you work for. The reason why you are becoming a journalist is because you want to make this world better. So, how are you going to do that? Who was your constituency? I know that sounds like politics. But, it is not politics. The reason why you want to do this is because you want to help build communities of action. You know we built it into Rappler. But, all of this, a millennial a twenty-something can do. They already have it. I think that the YouTube stars appeal to one part of what this generation is looking for. But, the other thing this generation is looking for is purpose and meaning. If you can find that, you can start writing.

The views expressed are those of the respective author. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.