Sexism in Journalism: Beset From All Sides

This seems to be the week for encountering stories about sexism against women working in journalism. It’s not that this is a new problem; I can look through any number of archives to find more things than I know what to do with talking about the sexism women encounter working in the media. Print journalists, television journalists, web journalists, doesn’t matter. If you are a woman, in addition to fighting to get ahead, period, you will also be fighting sexism from your colleagues, your sources, and pretty much everyone you interact with.

Over on Twitter, Mac McClelland said:

Love texting my insider BP cleanup supervisors for info & getting back, “pls send naked pics.” That happens to male reporters too, right?

For those of you who don’t know Mac and her work, she’s a superb investigative reporter at Mother Jones. She was amazing on the ground during the oil spill and she’s been involved in a lot of other environmental journalism as well. She’s also a human rights reporter and the author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She is pretty much who I want to be when I grow up, if I may fawn for a moment. She’s serious business.

And you bet her bottom dollar that if she was a he, she wouldn’t be encountering this kind of stuff. Because sexual harassment from sources is something that tends to happen specifically to women working in journalism. Sure, she may have a friendly or casual relationship with her source, she may have worked hard to build rapport, but that response? No matter how ‘joking’ it may be, it still wasn’t appropriate, and it still wouldn’t have been sent to a man, under most circumstances.

Over on TBD, Amanda Hess wrote about a sexual harassment case involving Mexican journalist Ines Sainz. She’s a sports reporter, and she’s far from the first to be harassed for being a woman to work in a very male-dominated field. Erin Andrews comes to mind as a particularly horrific case of sexual harassment.

Sainz’ harasser issued a statement justifying his behaviour, and Hess broke it down pretty neatly, discussing the patterns that come up over and over when it comes to talking about sexual harassment. Things like blaming the victim, saying that people who can’t take the heat shouldn’t try to create careers for themselves, and suggesting that it’s not ‘really’ harassment. These are all old and tired excuses, and you’d think people would stop using them at some point, but, unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Being a woman journalist is work. Being a journalist, period, is work because journalists are constantly hustling for the next story, the next big break, the thing that will secure their jobs, create a position as a columnist, get them on regular payroll instead of freelancing. For journalists appearing on television, there are added concerns about appearance, performance on set and live, being ready to be on your game in highly variable situations.

Add being a woman to that, and get a healthy dose of sexism. Get ready to be taken less seriously, assigned to fluff pieces, treated like you can’t do serious research, by your employers and coworkers. Fight for every byline. Struggle in an often highly sexist work environment where it is assumed that sexual harassment will be tolerated; get ready for your coworkers to think it’s completely acceptable to touch you, to make sexist jokes, to roll their eyes if you protest. Oh, sure, you can report it. At your own peril.

If you’re attractive, you’re ‘not serious.’ If you aren’t conventionally attractive, you’re a ‘hag’ and all your negative reporting is just because you’re bitter about not being attractive. If you appear on television news and you are a woman, you had better look flawless every time, and prepare to get treated as set dressing, instead of a real journalist, no matter what you are reporting on and where.

And everywhere you go, you will be treated as ‘the lady journalist.’ You will not be treated like a serious reporter. You will be asked when your boss is showing up, if you are doing research, if you’re someone’s assistant. The people you are reporting on will abuse you because of your gender and you will find some situations frankly dangerous. Many doors and potentials will be closed to you, no matter how great you are as a journalist, no matter how focused you are, no matter how skilled you are.

Name It. Change It. is a campaign designed to identify and fight sexism in the media, which is definitely a serious issue, and I’m glad to see people taking it on. But what about sexism against members of the media? Entrenched cultures of sexism are very hard to fight. People who report sexual harassment and kick up a fuss are the people who don’t get promotions, who get passed over when good stories come up, who find themselves in the noisy corner of the office, promised a better desk ‘as soon as one comes up.’ Sure, penalising people for reporting sexual harassment isn’t legal. But it happens anyway.

And when you’re fighting for your career, pursuing professional dreams, you may not be able to take the matter to court, to report it to government agencies. Doing so would eat up a lot of time, and it would also potentially scuttle your career. To be known as a ‘problem’ in the office is to be eternally relegated to covering garden parties and scout jamboreers.

Identifying sexism when we see it from the outside is important. I think it’s important to let reporters who are being sexually harassed know that we see what is happening and we are not happy about it, to affirm that, yes, what is happening is not ok. And it’s important to tell higherups in the media that we see what is going on, we see their tolerance for it, and we are not impressed.