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Verity Johnson: The biggest challenge of being a young woman in the media

For me, the biggest challenge of working in the media industry is learning to deal with the avalanche of public opinion around what a young woman should ‘be’.

Every girl grows up knowing that there are omnipresent societal expectations hovering over us guiding, critiquing or judging our behaviour along a subconscious checklist of ‘the correct woman’. Most of us deal with it in small ways in our everyday lives, like when we get casually judged on an outfit by a co-worker or told we’re too intimidating and bossy by ‘concerned friends.’

But when you work in the media, you deal with this on steroids. And it’s not actually from the media companies themselves. Sure, I could write forever about how far media companies have to go in reducing harassment, closing the pay gap and increasing the representation of more diverse voices – across age, gender and ethnicity. And I can’t deny working in the media made me more stress over the apparent need to stay skinny, beautiful and forever 21.  

But for me the most deeply, darkly confronting part of working in media wasn’t the nature of media itself. It was the brutal insight into society it gave me. If you’re in the media, you are public representatives of whatever demographic you happen to represent. As such you get layered with all of society’s expectations for that group. And boy, does our society have a lot to critique women about.

Stepping into the media was to step into an avalanche of critique on my appearance. I can go on TV to discuss the political implications of Brexit on the UK’s political stability and I’d get 20 tweets on how I was a dumb bimbo bitch because I smiled too much.

It is a constant deluge of attacks on your appearance and behaviour, everything from your outfits, your mannerisms and even your nail polish. Yes, your nail polish. Every time my eye shadow was too dark Tina from Timaru thought I looked like a ‘cheap tart’. If my jeans had rips in the knees Brendan from Balclutha thought I was leading the moral values of the nation astray. And when I was presenting Paul Henry, every day without fail someone messaged in to say I was too fat for TV. It was relentless. And there’s no choice except cope or collapse.

It’s not just about your appearance either, but because I’m also an opinion columnist I’m also constantly copping it for my opinions. And not in the “I actually read your article and here’s a thought through response to it…” More like a, “I will rape you” response to it.

Obviously it’s part of modern media to be publishing online. But the problem is that when female journalists put their opinions out there, they get roundly abused just for doing their job. More than half of women in media worldwide have received threats and abuse in 2018 simply for doing their job. Every 30 seconds, a harassing tweet is sent to a female journalist or politician. It’s so bad that ⅓ are considering leaving the profession. And the truth is that men in the media just don’t have to deal with this. Research suggests that female journalists are three times more likely to receive criticism and hatred online than their male counterparts.

The worst part about all of this isn’t the damage to your self confidence or even just your basic ability to do your job. It’s the fact that it shows you how much intolerance, casual sexism and outright misogyny is out there in the world.

We do a really good job of raising girls to think in school that the world is an equal balanced place. We’re all told we can do anything. But in reality, the real world still doesn’t think like that. That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of people who don’t  – just that there’s a whole swathe of society who still think young women should be seen and not heard. And are willing to attack any girls who refuse to do that…And not only that, but when you compare the levels of abuse of female journalists to male journalists, you realise the gritty, ugly, nasty truth of how swathes of society still sees women as a whole.

Now of course I know that every girl has a moment of awakening when she realises the difference between ‘the ideal world’ and ‘the real world’. But working in media was the most abrupt way you could realise this gap. And it’s amplified by access to the voices of a million of the loudest, angriest advocates of this.
Verity Johnson is a columnist, commentator and TV presenter. She can be found every Friday in the Dominion Post or online at Stuff NZ, or over at http://www.verityjohnson.com.


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