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Catherine Mayer, founder of the Women’s Equality Party, wrote an article recently, defending her decision to sue her former employer, Time magazine, for discrimination. She says that she didn’t know of one female journalist who hasn’t been discriminated against.
I certainly can’t speak for all female journalists, but I have seen a fair few of them treated extremely badly in my time – whether it is young women being encouraged to flirt to get stories and then turned on when they get into hot water, a failure to recognise a female journalist’s expertise when they work flexibly to raise children [while all the time relying on them to write leader articles] or a woman being made to feel incompetent for asking for more warning of changes to the production cycle because of childcare issues. In one job I was told that women reporters were rated on their breast size. One editor gleefully read out a report in a meeting that women sleep longer than men – proof, he said, that they are lazier. Or maybe proof that they are more tired, I muttered.
At one publication where we had a regular question which we invited readers to comment on every day, I lost count of the number of times football results were considered the big topic of the day. For instance, I was in one editorial meeting when the only other woman in the room suggested that the major report on breast cancer that day might make a good topic. There was a brief silence before someone mentioned the football results and normal service was resumed.
These are minor points maybe, but indicative of the culture. I would hope it has changed – and it has in some quarters, but I went back to one workplace recently and there was a dearth of women over a certain age. Yes, some may freely choose to leave once they have children and the onus is still on women to be the prime carer, but the underlying culture of the newsroom must play a significant role. General statistics on discrimination against women – from sexual harassment to pregnancy and maternity discrimination – suggest there is still a lot to do. On the other hand, the high statistics on discrimination may in part be due to a greater presence of women in the workplace and there is certainly a sense that women are fed up and fighting back, whether that is through naming and shaming or helping each other.
I have seen several of my friends in journalism face problems after having children and sometimes right from the moment they got pregnant, with all the potential harm increased stress at that time might do. The way out is often to freelance, but the insecurity and often very low wages associated mean many cannot make a living solely by freelancing.
I left one of my jobs because I felt there was not only zero support, but a culture that was not exactly encouraging to women, especially those with children. Even now, years afterwards, I feel wary talking about it, particularly in detail [hence ‘not exactly encouraging to women…’].
In my case, which is not an extreme one, that personal impact was immense. My confidence dropped almost to nothing. For months I felt like I was going into a war zone every day. I tried the grievance system and there was a mediation process which felt like it was intended just to cover the employer’s back should I sue. So I handed in my notice once I had found another job, albeit part time and significantly less well paid.
I wasn’t allowed to serve the notice though. Around two weeks before, I was given about half an hour to clear my desk when I was trying to get the next week’s issue finished. When I went back to hand in my pass a week or so later, I could not be in the newsroom for more than five minutes without shaking and feeling violently sick. My health suffered. I took legal advice, but that path is much more difficult than it might seem to those who haven’t taken it. You are reliant on getting colleagues to speak up for you and, if they fear for their jobs, it is not a position you want to put them in. The employer can afford an expensive lawyer to send you letters alleging all sorts and they may go through all your emails looking for anything at all. It is a truly shattering experience – it shatters all trust in employers of any kind and it takes years to rebuild the confidence you once had.
If it happened again I would walk away immediately – there is no point fighting a battle you can’t win, although in reality everyone loses. The thing that I can’t stand is seeing other women having a hard time and being made to feel useless for no good reason. I wanted to make a stand so that, at the very least, it would be on the record for others who followed me. I think that is vital – if you think something is wrong you should call it out, whether or not you are personally affected. I remember once interviewing a [male] manager who had seen one of his close friends subjected to bullying after returning from maternity leave. He was horrified and he left the organisation soon after. For some reason, I found that interview extremely powerful. It is not just the person bullied or harassed or badly treated who is affected. Other people are witnesses and they too are involved. They have a choice about how they react. They may not think that the risk of speaking up is too great and that they are not personally affected because “it’s a woman thing”, but they may also have sisters, mothers, perhaps daughters. Workplace culture is set by the people in it. Every person contributes and it won’t change until every person takes responsibility.
So I would like to say that when I read the cases of people who write into Workingmums.co.uk about discrimination I know just how devastating it can be when you have spent years dedicating yourself to something and feeling pride in doing a good job. And if I can help just one person not feel they are on their own going through that and that there is support then that is my very small way of putting the fury I still feel to effective use.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.