There are terrible things that happen to female journalists with unfortunate frequency — things like violence, job-threatening harassment, and sexual assault. Then there are the smaller, more every day things that we also experience. I asked some female journalists to share their stories about a moment of sexism they experienced in the workplace, and how they dealt with it. This is what I heard from them:
My first journalism job out of college was working at Popular Mechanics magazine. I wrote about things like robots and airplanes and nuclear power. One night I met up with a friend for dinner, and she invited two male co-workers from the ad agency she worked at. I told them I worked at Popular Mechanics. One of the men seemed very confused. He seemed to think my job was strange. I asked him why, and I’ll never forget his response: “Why would a cute blonde be interested in technology?”
He went on to say that I might as well be working at Playboy, that a woman’s desire to read about tech stuff was comparable to looking at male-targeted pornography. I tried to explain that roughly half the staff at Popular Mechanics were women. My friend chimed in that she used to work on cars when she was a teenager (actual mechanics). It was dinner, so I was trapped actually defending the notion that women are human beings with varied interests. Maybe this guy had just never met a woman before.
I was a 22-year-old editorial assistant working at a men’s magazine (with, unsurprisingly, mostly male editors) when this happened. They assigned a sex advice story to me, and I approached it very professionally, treating it as I would have any other service-oriented story — looking for surprising information, speaking to solid sources, etc. And I guess the end result was pretty good, which I was proud of. Until I found out that some of the guys on staff had been talking about it behind my back, presumably as an indication of my secret kinkiness or something (even though I at no point during the writing or editing process alluded to my own sex life). The way I found out was that an editor (let’s call him John) told me he’d been talking to the guy who had assigned me the story (let’s call him Bob) — John said, “Bob told me about your nickname.” I had no idea what he was talking about, and he initially refused to tell me more, acting very cagey and silly about it. Finally he broke down and told me (and let’s say my last name is Smith) — the nickname was “Dirty, Dirty Smith.”
I was pretty horrified, but was a little too naive and scared at the time to do anything about it (report it to HR, etc.). Not a very good ending to that story, but I’m guessing that’s unfortunately how a lot of this stuff goes — it happens, it’s ridiculous and gross, and then you just move on.
I once wrote a post about wardrobe essentials for female gamers. Searching through sites like Etsy that are creative marketplaces, I was able to find really cool, even custom, game-related clothing and accessories that were specifically for girls. That being said, the amount of stuff geared toward women pales in comparison to what men are offered.
When I published the piece, I received a lot of really positive comments. Women were talking about how much they liked the pieces, and salespeople that designed some of the items even reached out to me, to thank me for new business from female customers. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked. Sadly, this really positive feeling took a U-turn about two days after publishing. Men were starting to comment on the post. Some were saying my opinion didn’t matter as an author, that women shouldn’t be buying game-related items, and that women shouldn’t participate and certainly couldn’t win games, simply because we’re women. It’s disappointing that men would feel the need to share such things publicly, and even more so to think them. It made me realize that people really aren’t as progressive as I had thought, or maybe had wished, they would be. The bottom line, though, is not that realization. It is not that men have a sexist views toward female gamers or that they feel that they need to voice those views, but that there is a wonderful community of women who enjoy games and don’t care what men think. There is an active market of female game players who won’t back down from this kind of bullying. And that, to me, is the bottom line.
I lived in Paris between 2009 and 2011. When I told people I was a freelance writer, it raised eyebrows. Many assumed I was a rich girl living off a trust fund, when in fact, I was supporting myself. To further explain that I spent most of my time as a blogger for a women-focused website was even more confusing. Not just the part about blogging for a living, but about the topic. When opening my French bank account, I had far too many dealings with a pompous banker, but on our first meeting I told him my profession: that I was a writer, writing for women’s publications. His response, word for word, was, “For women? For girls? That’s horrible.” When I asked him why he’d say such a thing, he tried to laugh it off and his excuse was: “In France, the men are misogynists … I kid, a bit, but what does it matter? Women can do as much as men can now, feminism in France doesn’t have to be like that. You see, even when I put your profession in our system, I put écrivain not écrivaine. It’s built on the patriarchy.”
It wasn’t the first time I experienced disdain toward ladymag/blog writing. As a student studying in Paris a few years earlier, my host sister asked what I wanted to do after graduation, and I said I would probably try to get an assistant job at a women’s or fashion magazine and maybe I could work up to become an editor. Her response was, “Why would you want to do a thing like that?” She said it was superficial and meaningless. I’ve never experienced this lack of respect in the States, but I have mixed feelings about my interactions in France. As a guest in a foreign country, I was always conscious of being respectful of customs even when there were social or emotional consequences, so I regarded these situations with curiosity and never felt anger or rage about them.
I used to be a music journalist. On my first ever album review (of a U2 record), the first comment was “Jessica, Bono sings that the ‘boys play rock and roll.’ Only boys should be writing about it, too.” I can remember it verbatim because it stayed seared on my brain for years. That one snarky comment only motivated me to keep writing about music, if just to piss off that one loser.
Ambushing people at parties for interviews was tough too, because if you go up to a man at a party and start chatting, he often assumes you’re hitting on him, and then looks visibly deflated when you drop the “I’m a writer for X” bomb. I’ve definitely showed up for more than one interview with a male artist who would look me up and down and offer some form of, “YOU’RE the interviewer? Well, damn, it’s my lucky day.” Proceeding with doing your job after that is decidedly uncomfortable.
But the most blatant ad hominem attack I got was when I published an article on Jack White’s view of women on The Atlantic. I got a few informed critiques of my argument, which I welcomed and appreciated. But most of the comments section quickly devolved into a scathing bashing of the headshot of me that ran with my byline: “By the looks of you, you should be writing about Maroon 5 instead,” and predictable comments about how I was both a “feminazi” and a “cold bitch who just needs to get laid.” Of course, everyone knows not to take the internet peanut gallery too seriously. But still, even for a bit more seasoned writer like me, those anti-women remarks were hard to stomach. I’d imagine they’d be staggeringly discouraging for a female writer who’s just getting started in the business.
I’ve worked at two newspapers in my career. At one of them, there had been a big scandal that reverberated throughout the organization, and so they tried to make some changes to boost morale and create more openness. So they — I can’t remember specifically who “they” are — appointed a well-respected, popular editor to a masthead position in which his entire job was to talk with employees about their goals and how to achieve them. Sounds great, right? I had been a “guest editor” at the paper for six months, having transferred from the website. People wanted to keep me around, but I was deemed too junior to hire for a full-time, permanent staff position. And so I was sent to see this man.
He asked me if I wanted to keep working there, and I said, yes, very much. He asked whether I wanted to try to be a copy editor, and I said I didn’t really think that was where my skills lay and I had no copyediting experience. He then brought up Lindsay Lohan out of the blue. What did I think of her? Didn’t she seem troubled? (This was when she was just starting to be quite troubled.) I said yes, I was worried about her. He asked me whether I thought that her boobs had gotten a lot bigger, seemingly overnight. I said I hadn’t really noticed that. (I had noticed! She was going from being a child to being a young woman. And I didn’t want to talk with him about that.) He then switched topics abruptly, and talked about a recent long magazine story about teen hookup culture. He said he feared for his kids, and that he didn’t think teenagers valued sex anymore. Can you imagine how insane this conversation seemed? He then talked about Lindsay some more, and her boobs, and then I was dismissed, after he said that yes, I needed to take the copyediting test.
My allies who wanted to help me asked me how the meeting went, and I described this disaster. They looked incredulous, so I dropped it. I failed the copyediting test — of course — became a freelance writer (almost exclusively for that newspaper), and then got hired by another paper that didn’t think I was too junior to work there. I never saw that editor again, but can only assume he helped no one ever.
A few years ago, a friend and I began writing a weekly advice column for CNN.com’s Tech page. Like every column on the site, ours included a photo of the two of us, a smiling shot a friend had snapped in our neighborhood one afternoon. Like all good journalists, I scrolled to the comments section shortly after our first piece went live, ready to respond to factual questions and content-based feedback. Instead, we’d elicited such insightful comments as “I’d stick my dick in that,” “I’d do the short one but not the tall one,” “Can you imagine waking up next to that freak?” and “She’d look better with longer hair.”
The comments on our appearances and fuckability literally outnumbered remarks on the piece itself. I clicked over to columns in the section penned by men and found that their commenters (while no less vicious) kept looks out of their invective. Our editor was aghast. I was sick to my stomach.
Similar comments poured in on the next column and the one after that. Finally, our editor stopped running our headshots. Sexism still roiled on the comments section, where we were deemed “two angry former cheerleaders” and “lesbians” and “Future Spinsters of America” (OK, some of it’s pretty funny now) and accused of sleeping our way into the job and/or getting it from Daddy. (We are not siblings. Logic was not these commenters’ forte.) But an interesting thing happened: Readers came to our defense. They decried the personal attacks, complimented the writing, explained in slow, simple sentences what sarcasm is.
Ultimately, the column had a solid two-year run; we got some great reader questions and feedback, wrote some very fun stories, and learned to let the vitriol fade into a burbling din.
A few weeks ago, I was waiting in line with some colleagues for the Shia LaBeouf #IAMSORRY art exhibit — which was across the street from the BuzzFeed L.A. office — and immediately had become the unwilling target of the waiting-in-line boredom of a reporter from The Wrap. He tried to engage me in small talk, which I mostly ignored, though it was hard to ignore his comment to a female co-worker of his that he has a “thing” for redheads. (I am a redhead.) Finally, he asked me, “And what do you write for BuzzFeed, little lady?” It felt patronizing, to say the least, and I quickly turned away from him for the remainder of the wait.
Eventually, he moved inside to the exhibit. Before he left, though, he asked me what my Twitter handle was. I told him. A few hours later, he tweeted: “It was nice meeting BuzzFeed’s @SideOfGinger in line at the Shia Party today. She’s a little cutie but I was too shy to tell her in person.”
I felt disgusted and confused. I started to question every minute of our encounter to suss out what I’d done to deserve being reduced to a “little cutie” publicly on Twitter. Then I realized how ridiculous it was to be blaming myself. In spite of the fact that he was a journalist, and I was a fellow journalist, he chose to comment on my appearance and clearly didn’t view me as his equal. Even though we work in exactly the same field, and in the same city, being a woman made me, in his mind, a “cutie” and a “little lady.”
I didn’t respond to the tweet, but since he took the liberty of using my name publicly on Twitter to reduce me to something sexual, I’m taking this post to finally respond.
—Erin La Rosa
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