For Women Journalists, Just Being in the Office Can Be a Danger
From the news, you might think journalism is getting to be a pretty hazardous profession: just this week, journalists were injured in clashes with police in Russia, and not that long ago, a Libyan journalist was killed. Thanks to wars and unrest around the globe, field journalism has become a dicey profession, and journalists are heroes for risking their lives on the front lines. And closer to home, journalists face government intimidation, threats and pressure to kill stories or change their content to satisfy an audience.
But for women in journalism, there’s an even more real and present danger, and it’s right in the workplace: harassment and abuse from their male colleagues. In a wide-scale study, 64% of women in journalism reported that they experience abuse, threats and harassment during the course of their work — and more than half of it took place in the workplace. This is not a case of journalists being intimidated or pressured by outside forces attempting to limit press freedom, but about women being made uncomfortable by their own colleagues, many of whom have seniority as a result of underlying sexism in journalism.
Women in journalism, for example, must meet very strict appearance standards for broadcast journalism and other situations where their careers involve frequently being seen by the public. They’re often limited as they work their way through the ranks by nepotism in the office as well as sexist attitudes; it can be a struggle to be reassigned from the Home and Garden pages to the news, for example, and journalists covering subjects like women’s health, social welfare programs and similar social issues may be sneered at as focusing on “women’s issues.” For those few women who do manage to achieve higher ranks, the fight is never over, with male colleagues treating them disrespectfully even after they’ve more than proved their worth in the field and on the desk.
More disturbingly, many women are afraid to report harassment, because they fear more harassment as well as retaliation such as demotion. Furthermore, many of the women surveyed said that their workplaces had no functional way to report and handle harassment in the workplace, creating another reason to refrain from reporting: a fear that nothing would be done, and they would be exposed in the office as nuisances for daring to make the issue public.
In a shocking illustration of how widespread the problem is, an editor in India was recently at the center of a controversy after he committed sexual assault on a female colleague. The dangers for women in journalism are very real when the people supposedly in positions to protect them are instead abusing their power — and in this case, the story might not have gone public if the editor hadn’t started emailing his victim. Ostensibly his emails were intended as apologies, but they could also be viewed as further harassment of an already traumatized journalist just trying to do her job.
Writing about this issue for Slate, journalist Amanda Hess notes that: “The stories we tell each other may help us stay on the lookout for repeat offenders, and to be more wary of working with them — but of course, that calculation also affects our career opportunities. When most female journalists are abused, threatened, harassed, or assaulted at work, there are few outlets we can run to where we will not be forced to work with these men, or their friends and supporters. Some of the journalists who responded to the survey were assaulted by journalists with whom they did not directly work, but the news business is an erratic one. We could be working with them soon. And then we could be working beneath them.”
Her analysis speaks to a critical component of the issue: when your livelihood hangs on remaining silent and not becoming known as “difficult” among your colleagues and potential future editors, speaking out about harassment can be a great way to end your career. Clearly, it’s time for media organizations to take this issue seriously and implement policies for handling harassment reports appropriately and safely, because no one should fear coming to work in the morning.
Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.