Dressing like a lady and other lessons for a cub reporter (Part 7)

In journalism school, we learned how to shape a story into an inverted pyramid, ask open-ended questions and be fair-minded. What if we wanted to get a big important man to talk and we were female?

Well, I learned that lesson in my fourth-year investigative reporting class after I was told to interview Liberal Senator Colin Kenny for a book being written by one of my instructors, John Sawatsky.

I was nervous and Kenny was impatient and gave short, unhelpful answers. Although it was bitterly cold outside, he opened his window and seemed to lean into the howling winter wind. My tape recorder barely picked up his answers.

Back on campus, I told Sawatsky and Professor Joe Scanlon, co-instructor of the course, that I didn’t get much out of Kenny. The always-intimidating Scanlon looked me up and down and asked, “Was that what you were wearing?”

I was in the height of discount eighties fashion. Burnt orange corduroy jodhpurs and a matching checked shirt, made by Espirit, with boots from a vintage store. My clothes were clean, while he’d been wearing was wearing his usual uniform, a crumpled grey suit.

“You shouldn’t have worn that to the interview. You needed a skirt, heels, something more . . . professional,” he said. “Mind if I bring this up in class tonight?”

I spent the next few hours working myself into a lather, which was easy to do because my prednisone had only been tapered down to 40 mg from the 80 mg I was taking at the start of the school year. I downed a beer in the nearby campus restaurant and tried to convince passing female classmates to back me if I challenged the sexist notion that we needed to dress like ladies to get a good interview.

In class, Scanlon explained that I’d blown my interview because I didn’t wear a skirt or a dress.

I had my hand in the air before he finished sharing tips on how women should dress for success, and when he finally called on me, I sputtered, “I’m not baring my ankles for anybody” before ranting about the cleanliness of his suit and double standards.

legspillsLooking back, an essential lesson for female journalism students should have been how to deal with sexist notions that our almost entirely male professors held, and that existed in the newsrooms we would soon walk into. A bonus would have been teaching us how to handle the gender power imbalances that existed between us and our interview subjects, the men that ran the world, from top to bottom.

Later that year, as a summer student at the Toronto Star, I spent a month writing summer fun fluff for a special supplement with another female student, while the other students wrote news. Some already had a dozen or more bylines on me.

Although we’d all been told that only the three returning students from last year would be hired at the end of the summer, we were all hoping to stand out in case that changed.

Trying to catch up, I took the advice of a kindly veteran reporter and tried to turn every assignment sent my way into gold in the hopes that something shone.

My assigned mentor, the Poison Dwarf, wasn’t much help. He invariably criticized my writing and then asked me out for lunch, his version of treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. While other students were having lunch with their mentors and drinking together in the Print Room bar, I tried to fend the PD off by talking about my dad.

The PD took to insulting me on a regular basis and marking up my copy with a vicious red pen.

So I worked on my off-hours turning my honours research project from Carleton University into an investigative feature. I followed up on leads at home and found stories on my way to work, like two twins posing as living mannequins in a store window.

Then I noticed Ontario’s doctors were at a national meeting in Winnipeg, while labour negotiations were also going on with the provincial government back home. I found out what hotel they were staying at and managed to interview the MDs” executives about their concerns, which were headline worthy. At last, a front-page scoop. For two days.

I realized the best way to catch up was to work from home and come into the office to file stories before my afternoon shift started. I think I had reserves of energy from being on prednisone. The drug that finally stopped a horrible lupus flare that had attacked my joints, heart and lungs, was also my secret sauce.

Then something odd happened. The PD started taking me seriously. After reviewing my stories one week, he told me he’d decided I was really talented and he was going to help me get hired. I had no idea if this was a phantom job, or a real job might exist.

“Lunch?” asked the PD.

I’d earned his respect. It seemed safe enough.

The lunch was amicable. There was much discussion of cars and stereos. I saw a veteran female journalist also having lunch and worried she thought I was using my feminine wiles to win a job. For the record, I was wearing pants and loafers.skirtpills

On the drive back, the PD said, “I have a confession to make, and an apology.”

I couldn’t imagine what was coming.

“I have been really unfair to you and I know I’ve treated you poorly. I want to explain why.”

In that moment, I felt vindicated. But he had to keep talking.

“I was just really attracted to you and I was afraid that something might happen, so I thought it best just to keep it professional. And be really hard on you so I didn’t play favourites.”

What do you say to this? Make light of it? Offer a sweet smile of understanding? Oh, you poor conflicted man. Or, Hey, I wore pants to work, how dare you!

Then we stopped at a traffic light. I imagined pulling an ejection switch and blasting out of the car to get out of the situation. Instead, I opened the door and without a word, I got out to walk back to One Yonge.

To hell with the job. Or the alleged job.

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15 thoughts on “Dressing like a lady and other lessons for a cub reporter (Part 7)

  1. aktabunar

    you addressed a lot of stuff that young female journalists have to contend with early in their careers. I took to wearing a fake wedding band for years to avoid your PD scenario. Keep cranking out this wonderful prose.

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Katie

    The majority of my classmates (and about half of the instructors) were women when I graduated from Ryerson`s Masters program in 2010. Take that, Poison Dwarf!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Shelley Page Post author

      Thanks for the comment Rosemary. I know it was a long time ago and people think things have changed, and to a large degree they have, because there are so many women in journalism schools (way more than half), but I think it’s still interesting to reflect on how these attitudes shape and influence women’s working lives.

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  3. Krista Wheeler

    Wow – another great post! Fortunately I didn’t have a similar experience at Ryerson but I think that might be because I was in broadcast and was more interested in producing than being on air talent. Great post, Shelley!

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Shelley Page Post author

    Hey Krista, also I think that fortunately things have changed. They are way more female profs, and also, the men who teach aren’t from the stone age anymore. But I do think it’s good to reflect on that time, because that was the experience of many of the women who are not in senior positions in the media landscape. So there is a tough as nails, one of the boys mentality, among women in leadership. How else to survive?

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  5. Carrie Buchanan

    I found that wearing a dress or skirt could be distracting to the male interviewee, so my choice was usually a pantsuit. Scanlan was wrong about the skirt. However, I did find that a reporter should dress like the people she is interviewing. On Parliament Hill, that means to wear a jacket. On the police beat, however, that is often inappropriate. I remember showing up for a terrible accident on the 401 wearing a Holt Renfrew jacket and white pants. I had to climb a fence to get to the scene, and the police were all laughing at me. At least I wasn’t wearing a skirt!

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    1. Shelley Page Post author

      I totally agree. And for example with the Colin Kenny interview, a pantsuit would have been better, but in j-school I didn’t own one. Also, we’re still adhering to a male idea of what is appropriate dress because Parliament Hill was then a totally male bastion, so what they expected women to wear was what was pleasing to the eyes, more often than not. As for later, as a staffer, keeping pants, rainjacket and boots somewhere was pretty useful, but not always done. Being sent to a demonstration or crime scene in the middle of winter was horrible!!!

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      1. Shelley Page Post author

        Hey Carrie, I just saw this reply. I did of course own skirts, but it did just didn’t occur to me that my clean fashionable clothing was considered inappropriate. I hadn’t been out in the work world yet. So, I totally do agree a pant suit would have been better.

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      2. bospatt

        Can I just chip in (better late than never) that I am guessing the men in Shelley’s class never gave a thought to what THEY were wearing for interviews, and certainly the prof would not have latched on to their clothing choices as the reason a source was uncooperative.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. saimaazizthree

    Thanks for sharing this thought provoking post. For me, It was so hard to address this level of un-comfort as a new Canadian when I started my first career job in Canada because it was based on One-On-One assessments and I had to face some odd situations or unrelated to work but now after years, I feel more stronger to avoid such distractions.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Shelley Page Post author

      Thanks Saima, it’s always difficult when things that have nothing to do with the quality of our work become an issue, and we’re not sure why, or what to do about it. How have you handled it?

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