It is hard to imagine the extent of abuse and harassment that women in the media experience in the workplace. Peta Krost Maunder reports on the most comprehensive international research done in this field.
Covering war and violence can be a dangerous job for women, but threats at the hands of bosses or colleagues are an unexpected reality.
In research conducted jointly by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and International News Safety Institute, ‘Violence and harassment against women in the news media: a global report’, the majority of threats, intimidation and abuse occurred in the workplace. The perpetrators were most often male bosses, supervisors and co-workers. And sadly, most incidents weren’t reported either because those affected feared it would backfire on them or be ignored.
This is the hidden threat to all women journalists, be they in the so-called First World or developing nations. The findings of this report were gleaned from an online survey of almost 1 000 women around the world between August 2013 and January 2014. Of these, 81% were journalists, 23% editors, 14% television producers and 11% photographers.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents had experienced some form of intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to their work, ranging from name-calling to death threats.
The survey found that mostly this occurred in the workplace and was usually perpetrated by male bosses (31.7% of 1 882 incidents where the perpetrators were identified), supervisors and co-workers. And only about one-third felt safe enough to report it to an authority.
Of those who experienced some form of abuse, more than 14% had experienced sexual violence. Around 50% of those (where the perpetrator was classified) said it was at the hands of someone with whom they worked.
Nearly half the respondents who had experienced abuse said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. These included “unwanted comments on dress or appearance” (20.2%), “suggestive remarks or sounds” (18.6%), “jokes of a sexual nature” (16.9%), “invasion of personal space” (15.5%) and “unwanted physical contact” (14.7%).
However, most of those who reported acts of intimidation, threats or abuse said the acts included “abuse of power or authority” (70.8%), “verbal, written and or/physical intimidation including threats” (47.5%), and “attempts/threats to damage your reputation or honour” (34.2%), according to the report.
A United States-based journalist said, “I was slapped, regularly insulted and called demeaning names, not given certain assignments that were given to male co-workers instead, and forced to work overtime without being paid for it.”
Respondents from several different regions said their supervisors or co-workers had publicly criticised their work, personality or general competence as a humiliation and intimidation tactic. This included character assassination and direct insults.
Not many women reported the incidents against them to authorities and most alluded to a climate of impunity. A Pakistani journalist said there was no justice for females in her country. A British journalist, who did report her harassment, was told to “stop complaining” and an Indian journalist said “my boss didn’t believe me and said I was over-reacting and told me to grow up”.
A Cameroonian journalist said, “I never reported it. To whom should I report it? The same person who intimidated me is the same person to whom under normal circumstance, I was to report.”
A US journalist said, “I was too freaked out to report my situation (this was my first job right out of college) and the person I was working for who was causing the abuse was/is
a very well known figure in the industry. It would have been my word against his, and I felt completely powerless. I also felt it would be career suicide to bring something like this against this guy.”
According to the report when respondents did report acts of intimidation, threats and abuse, results ranged from nothing changing to being forced out of a job. Some said they regretted reporting abuse as negative responses from those above them made the situation worse.
A US journalist wrote, “After reporting… harassment and intimidation, I was the one sent home and removed from my normal responsibilities. Quickly the investigation turned on me. Embarrassing details about my personal life were dragged out and discussed by my supervisors. The HR department ruled against me based on incorrect factual information, and I appealed the decision. After the appeal, which caused me extreme emotional duress and panic, my harasser was let go with a very generous severance package, though the institution still did not acknowledge wrongdoing. I never recovered from the stress of reporting and am not sure if I should have done it.”
Several respondents said their news organisations were more supportive of the perpetrator than the complainant. “I was sacked from my job – the management made it clear that they would not discipline the perpetrator,” said an Australian journalist.
While more than one third of those who reported sexual violence had been attacked in the field, the next most common environment was in the office (24.5% of those reported).
A Ugandan journalist reported that her supervisor summoned her to his office and forced her to watch a sexually explicit film on his computer, after which he “grabbed me by the hand and started forcing me to touch his penis and to kiss his lips”.
When it came to sexual harassment, 42% reported that it took place in the office. An Indian journalist wrote, “The boss would physically touch me in the corridors, stalk me all over the office, try forcing himself on me, kiss me and fondle me when alone with me.”
A Swedish journalist reported that she was sexually harassed numerous times by her supervisor and co-workers, who engaged in “touching, hugs, hello kisses too close to the mouth, nibbling! Comments on my dress, my shoes, my make-up, the way I walked and my body. Comments on whether I was pregnant or not. Requests to take pictures of me in a bikini. Downloading porn on the field computer that we all used. Degrading jokes about women.” She also said that she would have colleagues “grunting” at her while commenting on her sex life.
A US journalist said she was nicknamed ‘Legs’ by her male editors and when she was sent out to interview predominantly males (police, firefighters etc), they would say, “Let’s throw Legs at them!”
An Albanian journalist was excluded from top-level work meetings because her male bosses and colleagues swapped “lewd” jokes and stories throughout. A New Zealand respondent said she regularly had to deal with workplace remarks about the size of her breasts and hearing her supervisor share explicit stories about his sexual conquests.
Many of the women who took part in the survey said sexual harassment was so commonplace, it was a routine part of their jobs. A British journalist described a range of incidents spanning several decades, beginning with an incident where she was called to an office as a young journalist and told that senior management wanted to “gang rape” her. She said she was “sexually threatened (in her mid-20s), sexually assaulted by my boss, demeaned, diminished and compared unfavourably to male colleagues”.
According to the report, many of the respondents used the term “ongoing” when describing their harassment.
Another British journalist said she had been subjected to sexual harassment for most of her life and was relieved to be over 40 and ignored for her looks and respected for her work.
A Russian journalist said that sexual harassment in newsrooms is normal. Only rape and causing serious bodily harm are considered an occasion to refer to authorities.
Some said their organisations didn’t have the internal mechanisms for handling reporting sexual harassment.
Sometimes the consequences of reporting included escalated harassment or job loss, as with an Australian journalist who was told by her station manager when she took an incident to him that “if I couldn’t stand the heat, I should get out of the kitchen”. She was soon fired and sent a harassing letter by the same manager.
Others said they were also discouraged from discussing the harassment with supervisors, colleagues and even union representatives. Some said they were told to “forget it” or “grow up”.
Forgetting it is the last thing these women should do. So, while this report provides the first comprehensive picture of what is happening to women in media around the world, there must be a real determined effort to turn this around, on an international, national and newsroom level. No woman should have to endure this.
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.