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Is the glass ceiling finally cracking?

Women journalists still deal with ‘locker room’ talk,
but the industry is slowly changing for the better

Zoe Cronin holds the dress that she wore to Commonwealth Stadium last summer.  (Photo by Sarah Spisak)

By Sarah Spisak

DAMN! CHECK HER out! Are you single? What’s going on?”

That’s what Zoe Cronin remembers hearing as she tried to conduct her first major sports interview – being sexually harassed from the sidelines by football players.

“I could feel them behind me and, when the wind would come, I felt really self-conscious and nervous.”

Cronin is a fourth-year student and athlete at Edmonton’s MacEwan University. She came to Canada from Auckland, N.Z., on a volleyball scholarship in 2014 and, though she started off in the kinesiology program, she switched to journalism after her first year.

“Sports reporting was my go-to because my life revolved around sports and still does,” she says.

When I came to Canada, I came to play volleyball, but I realized that I couldn’t do that for long. So, I figured, if I can’t play volleyball at the Olympics one day, then I want to go to the Olympics to report.”

Last May, Cronin did an apprenticeship with the local Global-TV outlet. She says she was excited about the prospect of doing some sports reporting. After writing a few stories, she went to Commonwealth Stadium with another female sports reporter from the station for an Eskimos practice.

“I was intimidated, because football is a foreign sport to me, and we don’t play it much in New Zealand,” she says. “Back home, our major sports team is [the famous rugby squad] the All Blacks, and they are known for being really polite and respectful.

“So that was all that I had to compare to.”

Cronin walked into the stadium ready to learn about Canadian football with a seasoned sports journalist. She wore a black dress and black heels, appropriate for the hot, dry weather. She didn’t expect it to stir up the CFL team – but, apparently, it doesn’t take much to attract unwanted attention from football players …

Cronin’s experience isn’t new in the news business.

‘Why don’t you just go home and bake cookies.
You’re not getting to cover this story’

U.S. journalist Barbara Reyelts has been working in newsrooms since 1980, and her career started with an experience that has stuck with her for the past 38 years.

“I was the only female in the newsroom when I started as a reporter,” she recalls. “I remember asking to cover a violent skirmish involving a strike in our coverage area.

“I was told it was a man’s story.

“When I kept pushing to cover the story, the assistant news director said, ‘Why don’t you just go home and bake cookies? You’re not getting to cover this story; it’s too dangerous!’”

Reyelts laughs and says that, to this day, she still can’t bake a good batch of cookies.

“I complained. But back then discrimination on the basis of gender was not something that anyone considered important.”

So she says, she dug in and set out to show she was as good at the job as any man.

“The best way to change minds is to do your best work, be honest, reliable and always verify everything you report.”

After continuing to insist that she be assigned hard news stories, Reyelts was eventually promoted to news director and spent 10 years running two TV stations in Duluth, Minn. During her time as news director, she made it a priority to hire a balance of men, women and people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In the last four decades since Reyelts began her career, discrimination and harassment of any kind has become an important issue, and is becoming less tolerated in the news media.

CBC’s Stephanie Coombs says things are improving for women.  (Sarah Spisak)

Stephanie Coombs, director of journalism and programming for CBC Edmonton, says diversity in the industry is changing for the better and news rooms are promoting that change.

“Representation is important.” Coombs says. “When you see someone who looks like you in a job, it’s important to know that it’s available to you. I wouldn’t have thought I could be an editor if I didn’t see women in those roles already.”

According to a 2018 diversity survey by the American Society of Newsroom Editors, gender diversity has been slowly increasing over the past 10 years. Women hold 41.2 per cent of the leadership roles in American newsrooms, a four per cent increase from 2017.

In Canada, there is an information gap regarding this subject, but The Canadian Journalism Project, led by Carleton, Laval and Ryerson universities, is running a gender diversity survey on Canadian newsrooms with the results expected in early 2019.

Coombs says the women before her have inspired her to run her newsrooms in a safe and inclusive way.

“If you don’t feel comfortable with an assignment, let’s talk about it,” she says. “Just because you are trying to get a story doesn’t mean that you have to put up with your rights being violated in some way.

“Whether you are a man, or woman, big or strong, you shouldn’t have to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, and we need to create spaces where people can articulate when they feel uncomfortable.”

‘I thought that there was no one else to blame
in this situation except myself’

But sometimes coming forward with concerns of harassment can be hard, especially if you are just starting in the industry, as Cronin was.

“I felt really intimidated because these were grown men and I thought that there was no one else to blame in this situation except myself.” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone because I thought that this behaviour was normalized.”

After her first day of conducting interviews at the stadium, Cronin returned to the station and immediately went to the bathroom.

“I stood in front of the mirror and I was angry. I remember looking at myself and thinking: ‘Nothing is on show. I am appropriately dressed. What did I do to get this reaction?’”

The next day, she went back to Commonwealth Stadium to conduct more interviews – this time covered from head to toe, despite the sweltering heat.

“I definitely wasn’t wearing a dress any more,” she recalls. “I made sure to wear dress pants and sleeves. Not even my ankles were showing.”

The team stayed quiet that day.

CTV’s Jeanette Dubé says Cronin’s story resonates with her role as a broadcast journalism instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Having many of her students going into the industry each year, she says, the Eskimos story raised concerns.

Jeanette Dubé, is a producer at CTV and instructor at NAIT.  (Sarah Spisak)

“You don’t have to sit silently and be treated that way.”

Dubé says she never suffered the kind of harassment Cronin endured, but she does recall a time in her career when being a mother lost her an opportunity in the newsroom.

“I was up against another female reporter for this job where I would have to go away for two weeks. I really thought that I was the front-runner for the job because I had done similar projects before.

“But I didn’t get it. This was the one time I asked why, and I was told that, because I am a mother, they thought that I wouldn’t want to leave my family for that long.”

Dubé stresses that there was no ill intent behind the decision, and that her experience just draws attention to another obstacle female journalists face.

‘The fact that the choice was made
for me was what hurt’

“They weren’t trying to be terrible to me, but it was just a natural assumption that they made. Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to leave my family for two weeks, but the fact that the choice was made for me was what hurt.”

Dubé has spent her career with CTV and has worked with many student interns like Cronin.

“I was never mean,” she says with a laugh. “But sometimes the newsroom gets so busy – and working with students now has changed my view. I always tell my students that, if I could go back, I would be more kind and take more time to show the interns the jobs and hear them out. We need to encourage and mentor the next generation of journalists.”

Cronin says she wishes that issues of harassment and discrimination were talked about more in universities. If they were, she says, she might not have been so naïve about the possibility of it happening to her.

“I think we should be made aware of it before we go into our internships. We don’t need to sugarcoat it or turn a blind eye to it but, when this is the first time we are experiencing the real world of journalism, a heads-up about it would be nice.

“Sports reporting is my passion and, while this incident didn’t deter me, I get worried thinking about the possible situations I could be put into in the future.”

Barbara Reyelts leads a news meeting; perseverance paid off for her in dealing with sexism in the newsroom.  (Courtesy Barbara Reyelts)

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