Articles - 3rd February 2020

Getting heard as a female journalist

Words by Jenny Stallard
Illustration by Jon McCormack

I can remember clearly the first time, as a woman, I had to shout to get my voice heard. I was never a quiet child, but it took until I was 12 years old and at school – a boys’ school which also accepted girls, say if they had a brother there – and the annual end of year play was announced. Lord of the Flies, as many will know, is a male-only cast. Yet two of my friends and I felt incensed at the idea that we could not audition.

So along we went to the auditions meeting and stated our case. I can still recall the nerves, the anticipation – the feeling that this was out of my comfort zone.

I’ll never know, of course, if they gave us parts to keep the peace or of they thought we were the next Florence Pugh, but as two of us played schoolboys and the other the Admiral who arrives at the end, it felt like a victory.

Fast forward to my adult working life, and as a journalist, there have also been moments where I’ve felt I need to speak up a little more to have my voice heard. I must caveat that, as a white, middle-class CIS woman, I know that there are many, many others who have to shout way, way louder. But there’s no denying, I think, in what’s traditionally a male-dominated industry (the celebration and surprise over the first Female Editor, Emma Tucker, for the Times reflects this, I think), women often have to push that bit harder for equal pay and the same opportunities.

I began my career on local newspapers and remember the ‘battle’ over the front-page story – and how, when I’d been there just two weeks, I won that coveted byline, a senior male reporter acted quite shocked. Perhaps he was secretly impressed. I like to think so. Was it because I was a woman? Or just the new kid on the block? As a senior features journalist working for websites and magazines, I have found often that I think my ideas are on a level pegging – something I feel more than can rate, as I get a fair amount of commissions. After all, a pitch is a pitch, and many of the people I pitch to are women. That said, there is also a hierarchy of having to get my voice heard above the other women. The group of ‘always commissioneds’ who seem to always be working with the biggest brands. To shout louder than them, when it comes to pitching, seems to be one battle I feel keenly.

There have been pay battles in the news lately, perhaps the most memorable being Samira Ahmed. Does the fact that this is headline news – and the case of Carrie Grace – show that women are still having to shout loud, not even in meeting rooms or conferences, but in court? It’s estimated that there’s a 16% pay difference between male a female freelance workers, and women have told UnderPinned that they don’t think to negotiate perhaps as much as a man might. I completely relate to this – the last time (which was indeed the first) that I negotiated on shifts (for some upcoming work in March), I felt almost sick as I did it. I explained that as 2020 dawned, I had put my rates up and if they could not match them, then that was fine, but I could not work for the lower fee.

I felt anything but empowered in the moment. But as they agreed, I did feel amazing – that I’d pushed to be paid what I truly believed a day of my time was worth to that company. Would a freelance man have done so without thinking? Journalist and podcaster Elizabeth Day has spoken about the differences in our approach by gender, finding that more women felt they’d be right for her podcast because fewer men saw they had a failure to talk about.

I have spent countless hours with my hand hovering over the ‘send’ button only to delete a pitch. What might they want with that opinion I’m sending out today. What would they want to know about my thoughts on X,Y or Z? I have written pitches on my feelings as a woman who is childfree by choice and deleted them, but for me the biggest time I delete is not the story but when I am pitching a big brand, such as a monthly magazine or national newspaper. It’s hard to know if all women feel this way, or all freelancers. I’m sure there are some women who think ‘This pitch is great!’ every time and some men who are struggling to dare to press the button, too.

Sometimes it’s harder to have my voice heard as a woman who hasn’t got children. Many of the shout outs for TV appearances are ‘we’re looking for mums…’ the comment pieces I see are often mum-led voices. As a woman who has chosen not to have children, I cannot participate on the same level. I cannot lament the differences between myself and a man who is a working dad, for example.

To explore this idea, I spoke to some other freelancers. Louise Goss is a broadcast journalist and founder and editor of the Homeworker Magazine. She says: “I think often when women find it harder to be heard, it comes down to confidence. Particularly when pitching, I think women can be too quick to undersell themselves and be less assertive and more apologetic in their approach. It doesn’t apply to all women, and I think the more experienced you are, the easier it becomes. As an editor, I get a lot of confident pitches from females but men generally seem more direct and less deterred by rejection. If you can bounce back with confidence from a “no” and are more comfortable to put yourself out there, you are going to be heard more readily and more frequently.”

Shifts (in-house work) are another area where things can differ. One female freelancer who asked to remain anonymous told me: “I think doing shifts on a national paper, you are sometimes treated by older reporters as a bit of a bimbo/too green/someone to hit on at the Xmas party… whereas men are seen as energetic go-getters, cub reporters to take out to the pub… “

For me, as a journalist, I find it interesting as I think often, sadly, it’s women who keep the voices quietened. There are women who repeatedly ignore my pitches, while there are men who always reply with a ‘thanks but no thanks’. There are women who do oh-so-friendly shout outs on social media for pitches ideas or shift workers and my emails never get a reply. I am especially amused by this as they’re often on publications that run features about women getting their voices heard! But then I wonder how men might feel pitching to these publications, which never run pieces with a male voice.

Louise Goss adds: “As a parent, I’ve had to turn down shifts that aren’t compatible with a school run or coincide with half term. Unless I can get extra childcare or my husband can reschedule things in his day, I’m suddenly less available. That has an ongoing impact as to whether I’m the first port of call for freelance work.”

As women, there’ll always be a need to shout, but the biggest thing to remember, even back to that moment in the school auditions, is to remember to keep shouting. It’s like a muscle, and the more we exercise it, the stronger it will become, and the more of a daily habit it will be for us.

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