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Women’s seminar ends on a high note as attendees reveal the gender backlash

LAUSANNE, July 31, 2020: “I had a college football coach kiss me in a hotel hallway as we both walked to our respective rooms. I quickly got away from him and went into my room. I had to interview him the next day. I even had an editor on my first job kiss me in the parking lot before I could push him away. But I still had to work with him.”

This was Christine Brennan’s nightmare many years ago. But back then, speaking about such repulsive advances was largely perceived as a taboo. In the face of such uncomfortable circumstances, Brennan had to ignore, remain polite and even smile in some cases, while trying to protect her principles and professionalism. “No one spoke up about these things back then. All it would have done would have labeled me a complainer and potentially derailed my career. So I just kept right on going. Nothing was going to stop me,” she explains.

In recent years campaigns like #MeToo and #LetHerSpeak have triggered a global revolution by inspiring women to share their experiences and openly condemn sexual harassment and all forms of abuse – verbal, physical, psychological and even economical, however, even today, many women in the sports media can still relate to Brennan’s experience.

THE GENDER BACKLASH These demeaning and troubling issues were brought to the fore during the final session of the AIPS Seminar “The Cost of Reporting while Female”, under the topic; The Gender Backlash, which was thoroughly discussed by a seasoned four-woman panel comprising Brennan, Rica Roy, Georgina Ruiz Sandoval and Dorothy Njoroge.

BECAUSE YOU ARE A WOMAN While introducing the topic, AIPS Vice President Evelyn Watta painted a picture of how women in newsrooms are viewed in the first place. She recalled an incident where she succeeded in getting a difficult interview done, but instead of getting compliments for a job well done, she was told: “We knew you would get it because you are a woman.” A flawed reaction that implies the stereotype of the woman as a sex object.

“I’m not here as a woman,” Watta insists. “I’m here as a journalist. I got the story with my journalistic skills. I did not go there and put my femininity on the table.”

In the words of Georgina Ruiz Sandoval, sports journalist and TV commentator, “when many of us receive only assignments that our male colleagues are not interested in or are not sports with a media impact, the feeling of not being measured with the same stick is evident”.

Known as the “voice of cycling” in Latin America, Sandoval has covered 19 Tours de France in a row, in addition to four Giro d’Italia and five Tours of Spain; as well as other races on the World Tour calendar. From 1998 to 2015, she covered a wide range of live events and syndicated programming with ESPN.

She adds: “For a female journalist, there is nothing worse than to feel that her interviews and editorial concepts are perceived as soft and with no substance.”

THE KITCHEN According to Dorothy Njoroge, the chairperson of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and the Ag. Head of the Journalism and Corporate Communication Department at the United States International University-Africa, the progress women have made in being able to infiltrate into fields originally seen as male preserves is threatening male privilege and has led to “a proliferation of negative actions aimed at keeping women ‘in their place’.”  

Brennan is an award-winning sports columnist and commentator for internationally recognised news outlets, yet she still gets countless tweets telling her to “go back to the kitchen”. “I thought, oh, no, you don’t want me there. You don’t want me in the kitchen. I’m not a good cook,” is her sarcastic reply.

In the absence of Pamela Morinière, the head of the campaign and communications department at the International Federation of Journalists, who was originally one of the panelists, but couldn’t join in due to personal reasons, Watta shared the findings of a survey done by the IFJ in June.

IMPACT OF COVID-19 About 600 women journalists from around the world were interviewed for this survey, which established that “unfortunately during this time (of the pandemic), gender inequalities increased in the media.” 

Njoroge also pointed out that gender-based violence has been on the rise all around the world, especially during the COVID-19 period. “For example, in Kenya, calls to the GBV hotline have gone up by 50% according to the gender minister.” 

Her ongoing study on the impact of the pandemic on the lives of women journalists in East Africa has shown that “while workplace sexual harassment has declined, online violence against women journalists has increased”. Also the women journalists say “they have been disproportionately affected by job losses in the media” largely because they have domestic responsibilities and because of the belief that women are not cut out for covering COVID-19 stories.

“Gender based violence is very high in the sub-continent,” Rica Roy, Deputy Editor at New Delhi Television in India, says. “I do not have a stat to tell you how many sports people or women sports journalists have left the profession because of gender based violence but I know of multiple cases.”

FINDING A MIDDLE GROUND However, some women still manage to weather the sexism storm to make a name for themselves. Brennan remembered a personal experience from when she was The Washington Post’s beat writer covering the Washington NFL team. “Back then, the owner of the team, Jack Kent Cooke, would sometimes pat me on the head, and talk about my clothes and hair. I smiled and tried to ignore it, which is what women did back then, while charging ahead with a few questions. Cooke laughed and answered half of them.”

She continues: “Twice, Cooke kissed me. He shook all the male reporters’ hands but leaned in for a kiss with me. Both times, I was able to turn my head and take it on the cheek. Cooke eventually got the hint and I simply got firm handshakes.”

Like Sandoval rightly noted, it is challenging for a woman to “find a middle ground” in a toxic work environment where “refusal to certain advances becomes persecution”. She adds: “On top of facing uncomfortable circumstances, one has to focus on making a difference.”

This year, Sandoval marked 30 years of professional experience in written, electronic and digital media, with specialization in Cycling, Olympic sports and American Football (NFL). “When I decided to study journalism in Mexico, my dream was to transcend an area that seemed mysterious and forbidden to women in my country. Little did I know that the path I chose will bring me fulfillment, extensive travel, and have experience with different traits and cultures.”

SUBJECT TO JUDGEMENTAL GLANCES However, she also had to “repel some sexual advances” in the course of her journey and even after three decades, “part of the public still don’t believe in me,” she laments. She explained some of challenges women sports journalists face on the job.

“Participating in post-match coverage in the locker room means that you have to accept any attitude and psychological abuse as a woman. It is a bubble where athletes are empowered because they are in their terrain… On other occasions in coverage, we journalists are the subject of judgemental glances about the wardrobe we choose, the hairstyle, the makeup, and we can perceive whether the athletes and coaches are taking us seriously.” 

NO WOMEN’S WASHROOM Rica Roy pointed out lack of infrastructure as another factor limiting women journalists. She says: “One of the ways of keeping women journalists out of the stadiums and fields of play is by not giving access to washrooms.” This is especially the case in the Indian subcontinent.

She continues: “As a journalist, I have visited several countries, travelled the world extensively, been to the corners of subcontinent and the biggest challenge I have faced in the subcontinent is lack of understanding about women’s health and sanitation. More often than not the stadiums and sports complexes do not have washrooms… But one of the first things about gender backlash is not providing the infrastructure. Keep the washrooms locked, keep the women out!”

Roy emphasized on the need for women in sports to be “given the space consistently”. And Sandoval agreed, saying: For most of us, sport is traumatic even before we go to the university to try to have a college degree. In Latin America, most physical education classes are not as good as they should and girls feel intimidated and body shamed. I think we need to change that so that we can create a better foundation for girls who want to come into sports reporting because they have had a good experience doing sports as children.”

SUPPORT Although gender equity is still a long way off and obstacles persist, “if you want something, go for it”, Brennan charged participants of the AIPS Seminar. “You have to grow the thickest skin, it’s the only way to survive, really,” says Sandoval. 

Today, cases of sexual harassment and abuse are being exposed. “I think we call that progress,” Brennan says, while referring to The Washington Post’s recent report on the “appalling and unacceptable” case of 15 female employees of the Washington NFL team, as well as two women reporters who covered the team. 

“Here’s the big difference: their terrible behavior was not ignored. In fact, it was reported by one of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious papers. Three men lost their jobs. People were outraged. Most important: the women were supported. They were believed.” 

The need for support was emphasised by the panelists, who also urged female colleagues to speak out and report cases of gender-based violence. Georgina: “I genuinely believe that sometimes fighting alone is not possible that we have to resort to an association such as AIPS or local journalism organizations to ask for advice. We need to work together and get empowered.”

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