Keeping Up Appearances

The ongoing and unfair expecations placed on women in the media

Story by Simran Gill and Reuben Dongalen Jr.
Photos by Veronnica MacKillop

Women journalists are no strangers to dealing with sexism in the workplace. And while progress has been made in recent decades amongst women in the industry, resistance to their success—and challenges not faced by their male colleagues—remain.

Margo Goodhand knows well some of the struggles that face women journalists. Goodhand was the first female editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, working there from 2007 to 2012, and struggled with being taken seriously as a leader due to her gender, she says. Even after reaching the top position, Goodhand still faced criticism and was constantly told that she was ruining the paper.

“I was refused the city editor’s job at the Winnipeg Free Press in the late ’90s because two male editors declared I was ‘too nice’ for the job,” she says. “I’m not that nice. The issue was that they didn’t think I was tough enough—that a city editor had to be a ‘my-way-
or-the-highway’ guy.”

The man that was hired as city editor lasted only one year.

“When I applied for the entertainment editor’s job in the ’90s, the editor expressed concerns that I might be one of those ‘birkenstockers’ who would remove all the ‘glamour’ from his section, and turn it into something less sexy,” she continues. “He is also the guy who—when I rejected one promotion because I had a toddler at home—scoffed and told me to ‘hire a nanny’ like everybody else.”

Consequently, Goodhand was forced to quit her job, twice, just so she would be able to stay at home with her children. The Winnipeg Free Press wouldn’t allow for flexible work hours, part-time arrangements or sabbaticals, and the maternity leave then was only 16 weeks.

“You could take a year off to write a book, but not to have a baby,” she says.

Goodhand is not alone. Vivian Smith, author of Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love—And Leave —Their Newspaper Careers, has been a reporter, editor and manager in the newspaper industry.

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Vivian Smith wrote her book while editor for Boulevard Magazine

“Women still now only represent one third of newsrooms in total; the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the fewer women you see,” says Smith, who wrote her book while still an editor for Boulevard Magazine in Victoria.

After doing research and speaking to women in the industry, Smith says she observed there were important differences between how men and women view their jobs as journalists.

“Men will generally say they are here to report the news—‘I am here to hold power to account’—which is still important, but the women will often say, ‘I’m a voice for the voiceless,’” says Smith. “It’s this idea that there are people out there who don’t have power and are affected by the system and women feel like they need to tell their stories and be their voice.”

Smith says that, although awareness is growing about sexism, it is still an ongoing issue facing many newsrooms across B.C.

“A few years ago, there were more women in management positions at the Victoria [Times Colonist]— it was a women masthead. Now they are all gone. Some got fired; some were moved,” she notes. “The women who are there don’t have people they can look up to and think ‘I can do that.’ Awareness is growing, women are voicing their concerns, but across the country, males dominate management positions.”

Sexism is perhaps still most prevalent in broadcasting, where appearances matter a great deal. Negative comments from viewers is one of the less pleasant parts of Sophie Lui’s job. Lui, a broadcaster since 1999, is currently the 6 p.m. co-anchor for Global B.C.’s News Hour—and while she has been a leading example of a successful female broadcaster, she is also constantly judged on the way she looks.

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Sophie Lui on set at Global

“I’ve had some really terrible comments. When I worked in Victoria, I had short, spiky hair and a viewer sent me, via Canada Post, a comb,” says Lui. “Just a comb in an envelope. No note, no return address—just a comb.”

In addition to combs in the mail, Lui regularly receives emails—from both female and male viewers—judging not the quality of her work, but her appearance.

“Just last week, someone wrote me to complain about my makeup, and he said, ‘Usually your makeup looks good, but something went wrong today—you should let your makeup artist know,’” says Lui. “And I’m not really even sure what he didn’t like, because he didn’t get specific. He just didn’t like my makeup.”

Lui’s transition from the morning show to the 6 p.m. newscast has been difficult for some viewers, says Lui. Many didn’t welcome the idea of a woman alongside co-anchor Chris Gailus.

“I think it took a little getting used to for viewers seeing me in the afternoon show because it’s always been a solo show. It’s always been a man,” says Lui. “There were comments saying, ‘Chris doesn’t need a helper,’ which stings, because that’s not what I am, and Chris would tell you that, too. It’s not about us. It’s not the Sophie and Chris show, or the Chris and Sophie show. It’s the News Hour. It’s about the news and the stories our whole newscast got, and puts on air, and we just happen to be the face of it.”

Women play a vital role in the industry, yet they are still perceived as less than their male counterparts. Lui says she believes that this is not something that is done consciously, with malice or intent. It is just the way society has been for many decades.

In the broadcast world, men have a very standard dress code: a suit and tie, dress shoes, maybe some product in the hair with very basic makeup. There’s usually less for a man to change day in and out, which gives viewers less to complain about. Women change their outfits daily and haircuts are much more apparent.That, plus the bright lights on camera, leave women open to much more scrutiny,” says Lui.

On-air personalities are seen by viewers every day. Lui says she is all too aware that if viewers see something new, it will have an impact—and not always a positive one.

“Because we go into their living rooms every night, they feel like they know us, and they do to a certain extent, but because they feel like they know us, they feel like they can tell you anything. They feel close to us.”

About a year ago Lui was on air with sportscaster Squire Barnes. She had just gotten off air and was beginning to take her makeup off when an earthquake shook Metro Vancouver, leaving her with no choice but to go back on-air without any makeup on.

“I actually said to the viewers, ‘My apologies,’ because there are so many lights that if you’re not wearing makeup, it’s glaring—it doesn’t look good,” says Lui.

Working in front of a camera and becoming the face of a newscast, as Lui has experienced, is vastly different than working behind the scenes, because she’s constantly thinking about appearances.

“When I am going shopping, I rarely shop for my own personal life anymore. I’m almost always shopping for: How will this look on air? Will I be able to wear it on camera?”

“I don’t walk by a mirror without looking into it,” she says.

Sonia Beeksma, a weather and traffic host with CTV Vancouver, has also received emails from viewers about her appearance—though she still manages to stays true to her personality, even when on camera.

“Being on air does not influence my style. My style is my own and I like to use it to reflect my personality,” says Beeksma. “I’m a conservative woman to begin with, and you never want your appearance to be a distraction from what you are trying to achieve.”

Beeksma says that dedication and perseverance to your craft should be the focus, and to disregard any sort of bullying from viewers. “Anytime you put yourself in the public eye, there’s room for judgment. You just can’t focus on that.”

As Smith wrote in Outsiders Still,  “The newsroom, like the majority of workplaces in Canada, is a gendered space… Many women journalists in the Western world today find their minority position in the industry increasingly problematic.” She goes on to argue that “an already stressful environment is compounded for women by family issues, sexism, and the proverbial glass ceiling”—a reality that many female journalists working in B.C. today can attest to.

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