As we mark International Women’s Day on Sunday, we can choose to think of the injustices that still exist, of the women around the world who face injustice merely because of their gender in direct and indirect ways. We can choose to think of how far we’ve come as a society, ending some of those injustices and actively encouraging more women to come forward and become leaders and role models. Or better yet, we can do both.
In the media, we like to think of ourselves as more progressive than other industries. Look in most journalism classes and you’ll find more women than men. There are plenty of women working in print, radio, television and digital media, particularly in positions that expose them to the public.
But when we narrow that view to the sports department and dedicated sports media, a different picture appears, one where if there are women at all, they’re kept on the sidelines (literally).
On Thursday, as part of a week of activities at Vanier College, five women who work in sports broadcasting in Montreal were invited to talk about their experiences trying to find their place in this man’s world. It was eye-opening.
Here’s what I learned:
It’s not always because of daddy
Maybe it was sexist of me to have this impression, but the default assumption for women who like sports is that it’s because of their fathers, or their brothers, that some strong male influence in their lives pushed them in this direction. But for some of these panellists, that wasn’t a factor at all. “I didn’t really grow up in a sports family,” said Amanda Stein, who co-hosts the weekend morning show on TSN 690. Kelly Greig, a contributor to Sportsnet Central Montreal who grew up in Ormstown, also said her family had little connection to sports and probably couldn’t name a Canadiens player other than P.K. Subban.
It’s interesting to see their career paths, too. Not all of them went straight for sports reporting. Before working at Sportsnet, Greig was a producer with CBC Radio. Andie Bennett said she studied to be a sound engineer and fell into an internship at what was then The Team 990, which is what turned her into a sports reporter on the radio.
Your haters make it personal
Anyone who becomes a public figure becomes the target for hate. It happens to politicians, to broadcasters, to business leaders. When talking about something as important as sports, that hate becomes more intense. And when it’s directed at women, hate takes on a scary tone. Robyn Flynn, a TSN 690 contributor who is active on social media, talked about getting rape threats as if they’re a simple occupational hazard. It’s an example of the type of crap that women have to deal with that I rarely have to worry about.
“My haters are my motivators. I try to prove them wrong,” Flynn said, which is a nice sentiment. As was Bennett relating advice she’d received from TSN’s Pierre McGuire, that the only people whose opinion you should worry about are people you respect.
But even people with thick skins can be hurt by words, particularly if they’re repeated from multiple sources, and if you never know for sure if someone is willing to act on them.
On social media, not only do people not like you, Bennett said, but they tell you why they don’t like you. Sometimes it’s for rational reasons, like the opinions you have or your skills as a broadcaster. Sometimes it’s for superficial or irrelevant things like the clothes you wear, what your face looks like or the sound of your voice. Greig said she tried to work on bringing down the pitch of her voice before realizing that it’s just part of what she is and she shouldn’t be trying to sound like someone else.
You should assert yourself, and do whatever they say
Near the beginning of the discussion, Bennett pointed out that women are less likely to ask for a raise or otherwise take charge or make themselves stand out in a work environment. It’s something sociologists have studied extensively. But then later in the discussion, everyone seemed to agree that you have to work for free at the beginning of your career, and accept anything that’s offered to you.
Actually, it’s not entirely a contradiction. Accepting any job offered to you means accepting things you might not think you’re qualified for. Women tend to underestimate their qualifications and men tend to overestimate them, and assuming you’re ready for something you’ve never tried before is kind of a guy thing to do. It shouldn’t be.
Jessica Rusnak said she hates the expression “Good things come to those who wait”. She prefers to say “Good things come to those who work.” Stein said a good way to get ahead in this business is to get your hand in everything, even if it means volunteering to work at the front desk when the secretary is on vacation.
Mitch Melnick is a feminist
It’s no coincidence that four of the five members of this panel are young women who at some point worked at the same station, interning or otherwise working with TSN 690 afternoon host Mitch Melnick. I’ve come to referring to it as the Mitch Melnick School of Female Sports Journalism. When Bennett got hired away from the station to work at CBC, he expressed frustration, not that Bennett was making a move to further her career, but that he had just lost a talented broadcaster who brought an intelligent female voice to the show. He said he wanted to find another one like her, and fortunately for him there were others out there.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room to make things better at TSN 690. Look at their list of shows and you don’t see any female headshots. The station doesn’t have a single local show with a woman in the driver’s seat.
And other local media aren’t doing any better. Since Chantal Desjardins got her job with Sportsnet, CTV Montreal’s sports department hasn’t had any female voices. Since Brenda Branswell went back to the city department, the Montreal Gazette’s sports section has been all-male.
The challenges are psychological as well as practical
In the high-pressure zone of a dressing room, it can be intimidating for a young rookie reporter trying to fit in. And if you’re a woman on top of that, you have the added pressure that if you screw up, everyone will think it’s because you’re a woman.
“A man in the business doesn’t mind saying he doesn’t know something, I agonize over not knowing an answer,” Bennett said. That’s part of the reason she spends so much more time preparing, because she’s afraid of looking stupid. “People are surprised that I like sports, surprised that I work in sports,” she said, and the last thing she wants to do is reinforce the impression that women don’t know what they’re talking about.
Even the most innocuous-seeming thing can have a serious effect on a young female journalist. Stein told the story of her first dressing room scrum, where she wanted to ask a question to a player about music. As she prefaced her question by saying she wanted to ask about something more personal, a journalist cracked that this wasn’t the place to ask for a player’s phone number. What might seem like a silly, forgettable joke to the wisecracking journalist stuck in the mind of his victim.
Bennett said having a sense of humour is “very important in this business” and can help tackle those psychological hurdles.
And then there’s the more practical problems. “We’re short, compared to men,” Bennett pointed out, a fact reinforced by the panel whose members were all about the same height. Heels can help that problem a bit, she said, and they’re also useful for stabbing the foot of a colleague getting in your way during a scrum. She said that part jokingly. I think.
Women rely on each other
Being the only woman in a dressing-room scrum can make one feel alone, but the women who work in sports broadcasting have developed a camaraderie. Stein described conversations with Bennett or RDS’s Chantal Machabée as a “safe space to ask questions that are dumb” even though the questions she’d ask her more experienced colleagues didn’t sound particularly dumb at all.
Nobody is asking women’s opinions on sports TV
TSN, Sportsnet, RDS and TVA Sports have women on their broadcast teams. But very few of them. And when they are used, it’s often as news anchors partnered with men (Jennifer Hedger, Kate Beirness, Carly Agro, Evanka Osmak), as straight reporters (Cassie Campbell, Chantal Machabée, Christine Simpson), or as hosts and panel moderators (Chantal Desjardins, Leah Hextall). They’re never doing play-by-play, and they’re never on the analyst panels for NHL games.
“I don’t want to say they’re there to wear pretty dresses, but that’s what it feels like,” Bennett said.
— Jennifer Botterill (@JenBotterill) March 7, 2015
Now, I’m well aware that there’s an inherent bias when it comes to the gender of sports commentators. Often they’re former major-league players, and that means guys. And even those who come from the journalism or broadcasting side are more likely to be men, both because men tend to be more interested in these sports and because men are more inclined to think their opinion about these things matter. So I totally understand that panels of analysts are going to be very male-heavy, no matter how feminist-minded the broadcaster is.
But to never have women calling games or even offering colour commentary? To never ask a woman during intermission what she thinks of a referee’s call or a goaltender’s performance?
We’ll probably get a few exceptions this weekend because of International Women’s Day. But recently the only time I saw a woman in one of these roles was when Cassie Campbell did colour commentary for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League playoffs on Sportsnet. Even there, it was a guy doing play by play.
The problem is exacerbated by a series of minor instances of sexism that pile up. When Hockey Night in Canada started its 60th season announcing the addition of its first woman, everyone got excited until they discovered that Andi Petrillo’s role was reduced to reading tweets and giving score updates between periods. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, she was physically separated from her colleagues, and even though her segment was called the “iDesk”, she was the only person in the studio without a desk. Or a chair, for that matter. And on top of that, someone thought it was a good idea to start her segments with a long moving shot from a camera on a jib that started out pointed at her from behind. Even if the intent was merely to make good television with elegant camera movements and a cool set design, the effect was to reinforce the impression that Petrillo was there to look pretty.
I certainly wasn’t left with the impression that the same camera work would have been done had it been Elliotte Friedman instead of Petrillo in that role.
The struggles of women’s sports are complicated
The panel was asked why women’s sports don’t get more attention. Outside of the Olympics, and some sports like curling and tennis, there’s a big disparity between men’s and women’s sports on TV.
Just this week, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is holding its Clarkson Cup playoffs. Sportsnet is carrying the final (Montreal vs. Boston, today at 2pm) and aired two of the four semifinal games. But they couldn’t even be bothered to carry the entire playoffs, much less any regular-season games.
This isn’t just a TV problem. The Montreal Stars’ clinching semifinal against Calgary was played in front of mostly empty seats in Markham, Ont. Montreal home games draw a few hundred fans on average, despite dirt-cheap $15 tickets and cheap food.
“You can’t get away from the fact that the men’s sports are more exciting,” Bennett said. “Men are faster, stronger.”
But she also pointed to how the different genders are treated by the media. “I look at the way that female athletes are marketed, and female sports are marketed. You wonder why we get so upset when someone asks Genie Bouchard to twirl. But it’s not just one instance.”
“I think it’s a mentality. It’s changing, but it’s slow.”
Stein pointed to another franchise that could serve as a lesson: “Look at the Impact. They started off small. What’s not to say we can’t do the same with women’s sports?”
Like I wrote at the beginning, we should look back as much as we look forward. It wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t even allowed in dressing rooms. And while it could be much better, TSN and Sportsnet are bringing in more women into their broadcast teams.
I chatted a bit with a few of the panelists after the discussion. Flynn told me she’d love to do play by play for the Canadiens some day. I for one don’t want to tell her that’s not possible just because she’s a woman.
Because that’s a stupid answer.
If you want to get your sports feminist side on, there’s the Clarkson Cup final Saturday at 2pm. On Sunday at 7:30pm, RDS’s Table d’hôte talk show has a discussion with Machabée and three other female sports journalists.