Throughout your journalistic career, did you ever feel like you had to minimize your feminine identity and act like “one of the boys” for the sake of your career?
This was a question posed to me by a Masters student from UCT as part of her Masters Thesis. My initial response was “no, I still like makeup and stuff”. Until a colleague reminded me of the late nights I spent sitting until the wee hours of the morning with the “guys” waiting for a story to land. I hated every moment of it, but did it anyways. I thought that was the only way to get an edge in my career.
When I started as a journalist, I joined a male dominated newsroom. But my gender was not my only disadvantage. I was a young (my age was always stacked against me) woman who dressed in hijaab.
Initially, it was like I never existed. I remember going to ANC press conferences in 2011/ 2012 at the height of the Julius Malema’s turmoil in the ANC and watching cliques of testosterone-high male journalists laughing and chatting but completely ignoring me when I wanted to find out what the ‘NDC’ stands for. I later found out from a sympathetic female colleague that it meant National Disciplinary Committee.
When I covered the ANC’s Mangaung conference I was the only female in the group of colleagues that went. Some even questioned why I had to be at the event on the basis of my gender. I remember that barefaced sexism was cloaked as “concern” because a young female teenager should never be allowed to travel alone or do a man’s job.
I worked hard. I learnt that the only way my femaleness won’t matter is when I can take on the guys and beat them at what they do. I liked to think I did that. But when the big stories arrived, like when the results of the ANC elective conference was announced, I was told the ‘guys’ would cover it. It was unfair. I was sitting night and day in those commissions, chasing the story but at the climatic moment of the event I was made irrelevant because the guys would do a better job. I dusted myself off and went out to find a different story. There was no time to feel down.
When I joined print, it was no different. I was subject to extra scrutiny that had nothing to do with my ability and had everything to do with my gender. When former president Nelson Mandela died, I filed stories non stop, covered every event, slept in my car and was on top of the story. At the memorial service at the FNB stadium, I happened to have the opportunity to chat to more than a dozen heads of states. But when it was time to go to Qunu for the funeral and only one journalist from every media house was given accreditation they sent a male journalist who didn’t do a single Mandela story prior to that. I queried it and the news editor said in plain terms: “we considered you but we said lets send a male instead”. I asked why and I was told: “Qunu is rough. You won’t be able to pee on the side of the street. It is rural”.
That set something off in me. I found the constant need to compensate for my femininity. I pushed limits and fought my fears. If the guys stayed at work until 10, I would leave at 10.30. I worked all day every day. Yet still, there was an element of not being good enough. Male journalists would ridicule the fact that I wanted to be a serious political journalist but I don’t drink and I am covered. Because it seemed like a female would only have a seat at the table on the terms and conditions of their male colleagues.
A female journalist friend of mine once told me that female journalists never have their own seats at the metaphorical table. And I experienced that.
I fought long and hard to be respected on the basis of my work and nothing else. I used to drive home in a fury when a male colleague would refer to me as a “ntomazana” or a small girl. It forced me to harden and be as strong and as good as the guys. I learnt to become unfazed with the objectification of women. I laughed at their disparaging jokes. I thought that being part of the boys club would validate me as a hard working journalist.
It was only recently when I realised that I did not need validation from a ‘boys club’. I am good enough to have a ‘seat at the table’. At the same time I learnt that there will always be certain inequalities that persist. Female journalists would always have to work twice as hard and even when we uncover groundbreaking news, it is our male colleagues that will tell us what to do. We will always be paid far less than our male colleagues. It would never be okay for us not to be at work on deadline because “my wife needs me”. We could never take the day off citing period pain. This world is intrinsically sexists and our contribution to an equal society is to shrug of the need to join the boys club. We are as good, if not better, on our own.