TEPIC, MEXICO - Traveling around Latin America to show journalists how to hone their digital skills, Mariana Santos quickly realized more women were filling column inches and producing content, but the region's newsrooms were still overwhelmingly led by men.
In a push to give women a better chance to set the agenda, her Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls) group is now helping Latin American women develop their own independent media companies.
"We really need more women who are able to be leaders and are not afraid," said Santos, formerly a digital designer for Britain's Guardian newspaper.
"Women do not get given good stories. They are told they got that good story because they went to sleep with a guy," she said by telephone from São Paulo in Brazil.
The non-profit Chicas Poderosas has trained about 5,000 women from Mexico to Argentina in interactive storytelling, investigative reporting and leadership skills, to help bolster their positions in the media where females are starkly absent from senior roles.
Now 30 journalists, designers, photographers and developers on the group's four-month accelerator scheme, New Ventures Lab, are working out how to develop, run and eventually monetize their own media businesses, most with a strong social slant.
One project runs a media website for Ecuador's LGBT community, while another is developing an arts and entertainment site in Brazil's Belo Horizonte. A group in Manaus is fact-checking news and information in the Amazon region of Brazil.
"This is very innovative - what we're trying to do is create a disruptive process to improve the media in Latin America," said Lia Valero, who took part in the lab run at Google's offices in São Paulo.
The Bogotá-based El Poder de Elegir (Power to Choose) group she is part of has worked with media technology firm Meedan to develop ways to fact-check political messages being exchanged via WhatsApp ahead of Colombia's May election.
The project wants WhatsApp users to forward messages they get with political content, which Valero's team will try to verify using a pool of journalists around the country.
They plan to respond with an image indicating whether the information is accurate or not, and post the results online.
Valero hopes the service will help voters make informed decisions and flag trends other journalists could pick up. It could also be deployed in upcoming elections in Brazil and Mexico, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Faced with a male-dominated media culture, Colombian women often struggle to climb the career ladder, said Valero, noting a prominent journalist's recent decision to tell how she was raped by a high-profile man she did not identify for fear of reprisal.
Change the Conversation
Bolstering women in Latin America's media could help push under-reported stories to the front page, including the high levels of femicide and poverty plaguing women across the region, said Chicas Poderosas' co-director Vicki Hammarstedt.
"We believe women having leadership positions will actually change the conversation, but also provide women with the opportunity to have a direct impact on that conversation," said Hammarstedt, who is also director of the University of California Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.
According to the Global Media Monitoring Project run by the World Association for Christian Communication, 43 percent of reporters and presenters in Latin America in 2015 were women, up from just 28 percent in 2000.
But men hold most senior posts while their female colleagues are often marginalized and paid less, and this affects how women are portrayed in the media, said Aimée Vega Montiel, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
In Mexico, "the world of the media in terms of structure is a male world", said Vega, who is also chair of UNESCO's Global Alliance on Media and Gender, noting a lack of gender parity from ownership through to journalists.
The "Chicas" behind Peru's Malquerida Dice (The Unbeloved Says) website aim to bust the notion that gender-focused writing only tackles issues like violence, to bring an eclectic mix of features, reviews and advice to its 1,000 monthly readers.
"Our main idea was to create a safe space for women to write and publish because we feel we are super under-represented," said Ana Muñoz Padrós, one of Malquerida's founders.
"Fifty percent of the creativity and imagination in the world is lost when women are not writing and if we're kept out of newsrooms," she added.
Co-founder Lucia Chuquillanqui, who grew up in a sprawling, working-class Lima neighborhood, said Malquerida wants to get more women with a similar background writing for the site.
"Where you're from and what you are adds something to the story," she said. "Most of the world has the same experience as I had in San Juan de Lurigancho... the same sense of violence, poverty, lack of good education — so I think that's a different perspective to tell."
Finding ways to help the "Chicas" make their ideas financially sustainable is one of the biggest challenges for the New Ventures Lab, which introduces them to media professionals and sets them up with local mentors.
"Most times, women in Latin America... are afraid to step forward," said Santos, who is from Portugal. "They are always asking for permission, always saying they are sorry for being successful."
"The goal here is to spread the feeling of yes, we can do things — so let's plan, let's strategize, let's articulate and get there," she added.