Here's What You Have To Put Up With When You're A Female Sports Journalist
Imagine you’re at work, in the zone, really busy and someone passing by yells, ‘Your d**k looks great in those shorts!’
Picture it, being in the midst of a crucial task when that stranger in seven words and a smirk reduces your credibility to an appendage, which has shriveled from a cool breeze.
It sounds more disrespectful, more implausible when you use a man in that example over a woman because it rarely, if ever, happens to them. That’s the impression I got last week anyway when I called out Belgian HLN pundit Sven Spoormakers for objectifying a young South American journalist in a similar fashion.
Spoormakers shared a picture on Twitter of ESPN reporter Belen Mendiguren interviewing pro cycling’s new wunderkind Remco Evenepoel at the Vuelta a San Juan, which the cyclist went on to win.
Spoormakers’ accompanying caption translated to, “[My male colleague] can’t compete with this. Or is it cold in Argentina?”
Or, effectively, ‘This chick’s t*ts look great in that top and she’s getting interviews because of it’.
I’m a cycling and sports journalist/television presenter with 11 years in the game. Speaking my mind now is not easy, but easier than when I was a rookie, who silently withstood being the butt of ‘jokes’ like that for years. But seeing a colleague last week undermine a young woman just trying to compete on a level playing field hit a nerve -- as did Spoormakers then trying to cast me off as a whining feminist.
When I turned the tables, asking Spoormakers if he’d like to be on the receiving end of the same commentary, our exchange went viral.
Writing this and engaging Spoormakers as I did was incredibly hard because in my experience addressing gender discrimination in a male dominated industry is an excellent way to commit career suicide. No one wants to hear about sexism. It’s ugly and it’s easier to look away.
It’s easier to say nothing, especially when female journalists are still a clear minority.
I don’t know Spoormakers or Mendiguren -- I’ve never come across them in person. However, I am familiar with the overtones of his tweet and moreover, the traumatic effect those overtones can have on a woman’s professional and personal life.
In my experience, female sports journalists do exactly the same job as their male counterparts but have to work twice as hard and quietly withstand twice as much because of traditional sexism.
As a rookie, I acted like nothing had happened the day after an engaged athlete pushed through my hotel door and pinned me against the wall to let me know he had a boner. I came across the #MeToo movement after seeing an alarming number of female colleagues share the slogan.
I worked for two departments at a broadcast company but only got paid by one. Older colleagues attributed the stories I garnered not to hard work but to ‘sex appeal’.
The popular ‘she slept her way to the top’ chestnut used to make me cry. If I went to dinner with an athlete, I wasn’t congratulated for establishing a networking opportunity -- instead, speculation circled that I was romantically linked to them.
I’d stand in front of the mirror and consider if the skirt I was wearing would further accentuate my long legs and garner unwanted attention. Granted when I started, I was fairly innocent and naïve, but hell, British MP Tracy Brabin on Tuesday had to defend herself for showing a bit of her shoulder in parliament.
Detractors to my own viral episode castigated Mendiguren for the outfit she was wearing. Firstly, there are less demure singlets in the kids’ section at Target. Secondly, I’m pretty sure she didn’t turn the headlights on before conducting her interview.
Let’s be honest, the nipples aren’t the issue here. The people pointing at them are.
If they were showing through an XXL polo top we’d still be having this conversation. Maybe not though -- if she was less attractive or flat-chested or average at her job, or in other words, not a threat in what is a highly competitive industry.
As for her attire being ‘unprofessional’, well, you try working outdoors all day in the stinking heat, which is what our office largely is, and see if a pantsuit is doable. Keep in mind that you’re operating in a media scrum, which moves like a rugby maul and smells of an unventilated boys' locker-room minus the Lynx Africa.
Never mind, as an old teacher of mine said, the abounding “male genitalia shrink-wrapped in lycra”.
This is not a 'death to Sven' or man-bashing exercise -- believe me, women contribute. It was mainly men who advocated for me last week, and who have encouraged me to speak up on the unheard and unseen challenges female journalists specifically face and usually bury deep.
Sadly, I’m doing so now because I’ve realised that the gender divide still exists in sports journalism.
Not all dinosaurs are extinct, and I no longer want to, through saying nothing, perpetuate a culture that has hurt me in the past and may still threaten to diminish the shine of the next generation.
No woman I know has ever said a male journalist got an exclusive because he was hot. But a lot of women I know have been told that. It should be a given that female reporters can be themselves, compete on a safe and level playing field, be recognised, and respected, foremost on their merit.
In the end, Spoormakers deleted his tweets and apologised to Mendiguren, a self-identified feminist activist with almost 80,000 social media followers, who perhaps summarised it best:
“Don’t ever stay silent,” she said.