Cassie Delaney investigates the Irish media industry and reveals a culture of sexism, assault and cover-up…
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
In fact, there was a period of over 1,000 years from Rome’s founding to its fall. It included seven wars, four dynasties, Kings and tonnes of Emperors. The Colosseum alone required seven years of labour from 60,000 Jewish slaves before spectators could enter and watch the big strong gladiators fight to the death. So no, Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day but at least, after 1,000 years we got a good adage and the blueprints for building empires.
“My first job out of college, I was 22. My friends knew me at that time as someone who brought a laptop and charger everywhere she went because I would get calls from at any time on any day saying ‘I need this done immediately’. Because it was my first job, I thought this was how journalism worked.”
Much like the Romans, we’ve built our empires as equilateral triangles. As the peak narrows, power concentrates and the number of available positions decreases. The logic is that the emperor knows best and from the top spot can direct subordinates to success. Across the world we’ve structured businesses like this and generally accept that direction comes from business owners, CEO’s, C-Suite management and so on and so forth. Unsurprisingly, the type of people that can advance to peak position is limited.
In Europe though 46.4% of the workforce is female, only 7.7% of CEOs are women. Only 18.6% of executives are women and less than 1 in 3 board members are female. This gender imbalance worsens in certain industries. Women dominate the caring professions like nursing, teaching, health and childcare but are completely outnumbered in the fields of Science, Engineering, Protective Forces and Information and Communications.
It’s a problem that has persisted in the Irish Media industry and one that has devastating consequences for female journalists. In researching this story I asked women to share their experiences of working in the Irish Media and tales of misogyny, discrimination and sexual assault quickly flooded my inbox. More concerningly, a clear pattern of behaviour emerged. The quotes throughout this story are from some of the women. Unsurprisingly, all wished to remain anonymous.
From the moment women enter the industry, they are bombarded with the message that they are lucky to be there. It’s easy to see why. According to the International Labour Organisation, women fulfil a total of 20% of available roles in the information and communications industries.
“He would tell us our work was shit. He would tell us so many people could have our job in an instant.”
Research by Who Makes The News highlights that even within newsrooms, women are further discriminated against and assigned mainly to topics such as science and health, economy and celebrity arts and media. They are significantly less likely to cover politics and government, crime and violence, and social and legal.
“I got a tip-off about a sports story and went to talk to my editor about it. I’d already reached out for statements from those involved and everything. He called over another male reporter and told me to send everything over to him. The story ended up becoming one of those ones everyone was talking about the next day, and both the editor and reporter were praised within the company for breaking the story.
“The reporter who got it wasn’t more senior, or anything. I wasn’t ever given a reason as to why it was taken off me.”
The lack of representation of women is not just apparent in the newsroom, but also within the actual news. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project:
“Women continue to be marginalised from the news agenda, mostly not even reaching one-third of news sources or reporters, although they have made improvements in terms of reading the news as announcers: this is, arguably, a consequence of the ‘feminisation’ and ‘itemisation’ of news, where women’s softer voice and eye appeal (TV announcers are rarely over 35 years and mostly attractive women) conforms more readily to news-as-infotainment.”
“Women’s views are mostly sought as members of the public or in their domestic role as mothers, daughters and wives: they are much less likely to contribute to stories as experts, as professionals, as politicians or as business people. The news is still dominated by men’s voices talking about things in which they have the starring role, voices of authority.”
Women are essentially rendered invisible from large parts of the media agenda and when we are invited to speak, it is within a narrow repertoire of topics from an equally narrow range of role positions.
“At a media award ceremony an old lecturer came to talk to me and told me not to bother pursuing a journalist or media career for another few years because I was ‘too pretty’ and ‘no one will take me seriously’.”
As women move through their media careers aware that their options for progress or diversification are limited, a male-dominant culture triumphs. This presents a plethora of challenges for the women working within the industry.
According to Catalyst, women working in male-dominated workspaces experience higher levels of stress and anxiety, receive less mentoring and access to leaders and suffer through sexism and sexual harassment.
“I was doing a mental health project and he said he’d help. He then sent me three pictures of himself in bed.”
The lack of mentoring is a prevalent issue. A recent study by LeanIn.org showed that 33% of women (rising to 41% of black women) “never have a substantive interaction with a senior leader.” This absences of interaction means women don’t get the advocacy they need to succeed, advance or even understand how they can improve in their existing roles.
“They’d rarely post my stuff on the brands social media channels so mostly it just lived on the website which people never organically visited. It meant I got no exposure, no clicks, no chance to perform well and learn from it. I had to justify writing things to a level others absolutely didn’t.” (A journalist shares her experience of working on a mostly male team).
This week when Piers Morgan had an emotional outburst and stormed off Good Morning Britain, he diverted attention from an incident the day before in which he commented on co-host Charlotte Hawkins’ dress calling it a mini skirt and claiming his eyes were “distracted.” He then instructed Charlotte to stand and reveal her outfit to GMB’s 1.3 million viewers.
On our little green isle, I spoke to women who encountered serious incidents of harassment and were ultimately removed from their positions or reassigned.
“I was harassed by a male freelance journalist. When I complained to management and HR they protected him. He was endorsed by a male colleague who was a very reputable journalist. They found no wrongdoing and I was let go.”
In many stories shared with me this week, what began as casual sexism often progressed into physical assault.
“I was described as ‘belonging to the editor’.”
Another journalist shares:
“We were at a work function and I was groped so overtly in a crowded room that a woman came over to ‘save me’.”
It’s no shock that a survey from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions reveals that four in every five occurrences of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported.
81% of survey respondents did not report the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer, while only one in four of those who did report an incident felt it was taken seriously and dealt with satisfactorily.
One-third of respondents who did not report the incident to their employer feared that doing so would have a negative impact on their working relationships, while 27% feared it would have a negative impact on their career.
“I tried to speak to the HR director who told me that he had seen what I had gone through but it would be very damaging to me to try and take it further. I actually did speak to a barrister about it but in the end was too anxious to take it any further.”
The coping mechanisms that women have had to develop in order to deal with this issue, unfortunately, only exacerbate the problem. According to Catalyst women adapt by distancing themselves from colleagues, accepting masculine cultural norms or by leaving the industry entirely.
For those that do move on to other industries, some feel long term ill-effects of the treatment they received.
“I have a hangover from it spilling into my job these days. I hesitate to contact people for work stuff because I assume they’ll ignore me.”
Culture and power contribute to the creation of unsafe spaces for women.
“Evidence of the culture of silence regarding sexual harassment and assault can be found as far back as Biblical times—and likely further,” says Chris Edmonds, founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, and author of The Culture Engine.
“A culture of silence is driven by power and control: someone in power wants the body of another, so the powerful person threatens him/her with loss of job, loss of respect, loss of career, and more.”
There is also an inherent bias in our view of leaders that perpetuates an archetype of hard-hitting and bullish, successful men. It has resulted in leaders that take what they want and suffer no consequences. When Donald Trump can claim he likes to grab women by the pussy and still be elected president, it sends a message that a blind eye can and will be turned.
In Irish media it’s no different.
“I had a boss who thought that I had given a story to another newspaper which I haven’t and after a few drinks got me up against the wall lifted me with one hand up by my throat. That was just considered normal behaviour because he had a few drinks on him and I was told to get over it.”
All week, stories have come at me through email, calls, WhatsApp and DM. They are individual but also painfully familiar.
“At a function several years ago I got into a conversation with an editor. He’s a well-known man and much older than I am. I was talking to him, it was in no way flirtatious.
“The entire team was staying at a hotel. We continued drinking and ended up talking about my ex. I got upset and said I was going to bed.
“He said he was going too, we got into the lift together and when we got to his floor, he offered me some water and then walked me to my room. When we got there, I opened the door and he walked in.
“I made a point of not sitting down and made it clear I wanted to go to sleep. I went to the toilet and when I came back, he had stripped off completely naked and was lying in my bed.
I retreated to the bathroom and he realised he had misjudged the situation, got dressed and left.
“I wanted to confront him but I was at an obvious disadvantage because of his seniority. I’m a lot easier to replace than him.”
Men know when their behaviour is bad.
In 2018, Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houston suspected that the #MeToo movement may have adverse unintentional consequences. Atwater’s team created two surveys (one for men and one for women) and distributed them to workers in a wide range of industries, collecting data from 152 men and 303 women in all.
The researchers sought to determine whether men and women held different views about what constitutes sexual harassment. They took this tack because men accused of the behaviour frequently claim they didn’t understand how their actions were being perceived, while women who report it were often deemed overly sensitive.
The study detailed 19 different behaviours including persistently asking female subordinates out after she has said no, emailing sexual jokes to a subordinate, and commenting on a female subordinate’s looks.
Participants were asked to identify the behaviours that were unacceptable and for the most part, men and women agreed. For the three items on which they differed, men were more likely than women to label the actions harassment.
“Most men know what sexual harassment is, and most women know what it is,” Atwater told the Harvard Business Review. “The idea that men don’t know their behaviour is bad and that women are making a mountain out of a molehill is largely untrue. If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment.”
“He told me his boss would make sure that I’d never get another job in Irish media again.”
So how do we fix a problem like the media? Well, as with all male-dominated industries, creating space for women to progress is crucial. Ireland has, for so long, had an issue with overly concentrated media ownership and until the recent acquisition of Communicorp by Bauer Media, that ownership was predominantly male. Work needs to be done to support the establishment and development of female-managed media companies, training needs to be provided for all existing staff and companies need to interrogate their cultures, hire and promote more women.
Outside of the organisations, it’s important to know the success of media companies relies on its consumers. Our attention gives publishers value and we can quickly alter that by refusing to engage with brands that don’t promote gender equality. Consuming better media begets better media, and supporting female-led publications drives tangible progress.
Holding colleagues accountable, calling out sexual harassment and assault and being an ally to victims will also help challenge accepted culture.
It’s true that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But who’s to say it can’t be dismantled in one.
Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash