Breaching the Boys Club

I answered the phone. A male voice asked to speak to the man in charge. I said I was in charge and could I help him? “I don’t want to talk to a goddamn girl,” he replied. I snapped.

By Catherine Ford

This is one woman’s story, but it is about all women who challenge the deeply held prejudices of society. It is both personal and political. And it is a tale of triumph, whether we women admit it or not.

More than 40 years ago, as a 19-year-old from the University of Alberta, I walked into the newsroom of the Calgary Herald and irrevocably fell in love with the job: the smell of ink and the feel of paper, the rumble of presses next door, the whole idea of being a part of “history on the run.” It was that passion that kept me working as a journalist for all those years. It certainly wasn’t the treatment afforded me as a female. Had I succumbed to the sometimes rank atmosphere, I wouldn’t be writing this today—and I certainly would not call the experience a triumph.

The 19-year-old who sat down in front of an Underwood 5 typewriter to write her first story, and promptly nearly strangled herself by catching her necklace in the keyboard, wasn’t naive. But, having been raised in a white-bread, middle-class nuclear family, having had a mother there to greet me every day when I got home from school, and certainly not having known poverty, I had an idyllic view of the world and the place of men and women in it. Growing up in the fifties, I knew it wasn’t common for women—other than nuns, war widows and single teachers or nurses—to work outside the home. I had absorbed the lessons of the white picket fence, post-Second World War society: marriage, babies, suburb and station wagon.

The problem was that my little-girl dreams did not include this vision of the future. Unlike most of my friends, I had never dreamed of marriage and family. Possibly I believed they would come along in due time while I did what I really wanted to do—write. I had examples to prove that women didn’t have to be teachers, nurses or nuns: my aunt, Helen Ford Perkins, who had been a practising lawyer since before I was born; and Eva Reid, a family friend and reporter for The Calgary Albertan. They inspired me because they were the first women I’d known from my mother’s generation who had non-traditional jobs.

Journalism won out over law. I could be a newspaper writer, I thought. And when Eva called me from her desk at the Albertan to congratulate me the day my first byline appeared in the Herald, when she said I had “scooped” her, I felt a frisson of excitement. I don’t remember the story I’d written, but I remember that phone call. I knew I had made the right choice of careers. I still believe so.

But it didn’t take long to disabuse me of any comfortable views I might have had about women being treated as equals: only as long as it took for an editor (name withheld and department unidentified to protect his family) to run his hand up my skirt while I was standing beside his desk in the newsroom, asking him a question. I said nothing to anyone. After all, didn’t women in the working world bring this upon themselves?

If the incident had been isolated or the editor an aberration, I could have categorized the incident as one man’s mistake. Or perhaps I could have justified my silence under the heading: “Uppity women working in a man’s world get what they deserve.”

I remember that I was wearing a sleeveless dress at the time, which, according to the Ursuline nun whose voice echoed in my head, was only “asking for it.” Apparently the sight of underarm flesh was a trigger of male lust. How could I have forgotten such a lesson? (This was a different nun than the one who advised us girls in high school that if we were ever in a crowded car and had to sit on a boy’s lap, we should make sure there was a copy of the Edmonton telephone directory between us. That might explain why there are seniors driving around Edmonton with phone books in their back seats, just in case.)

In the years since, it would seem that women actually have achieved equality in the media. Certainly, no editor today could get away with fondling an employee. Newspapers pay their reporters on a sliding scale based on experience, regardless of gender. You might assume no modern newspaper would fall into a sexist trap like using tits and ass to sell the product. You’d be wrong. In a 2001 feature in Media, the Canadian Association of Journalists magazine, Barbara Freeman asks, “What are all those photos of breasts doing back in our newspapers and magazines?”

According to Freeman, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University, the problem isn’t the breasts themselves, but the attitude such depictions encourage: that women need not be taken seriously. “That today’s female editors and writers are sometimes complicit in producing overtly sexist content for the express purpose of selling the news does not justify it, but raises questions about their own secret vulnerabilities in a conservative and male-dominated news hierarchy,” she writes. In other words, you still need a penis to get ahead.

This is true not just of newspapers, but of all media. A friend, whose experience in television and film would qualify her for any job, writes: “I have seen first-hand what happens to female directors in this industry. It’s virtually impossible to break into the director role, which is the big-ticket job on any production. Men just coming out of college will be identified as directors- in-training, while women for some reason start at the bottom of the pile as production assistants and then work their asses off thinking they’re going to ‘work their way up.’ This just never happens. Broadcasters and production companies always hire men. Even if there’s a female producer or creator, they rarely have input as to their crew.”

On the surface, not much has changed.

In 1966, when I was just starting work at the London Free Press, the personnel director put the employees manual down in front of me and opened to the page which outlined the newsroom pay scale. There was one rate of pay for the men, a lower one for the women. Maybe if all the female journalists at the paper were working in what was then described as “the women’s pages,” an argument could have been made, feeble as it would have been. But I was hired as a news reporter, the only one in the newsroom, doing the same work as the men.

As it was explained to me, a man had to support his wife and children; therefore he deserved more money than I did. And, it was added, should I marry and become pregnant I would have to quit the job. Again, I said nothing.

You might believe, if you don’t work in the communications industry, that employers who bring the news to the world would be the first on the block to walk the talk—to promote women and encourage them to be leaders. Again, you’d be wrong. While there have been a number of women editors-in- chief, the major newspaper group in Canada, now part of the CanWest organization (which owns Global TV), still has only a single female publisher—Linda Hughes of the Edmonton Journal, who was appointed under previous owners (Southam) in 1991. When interviewed for Southam’s internal magazine in 1992, she said, “I don’t know how you can’t be a feminist if you define the term as a belief in women’s equality and the fight to eradicate any inequalities… It’s hard to imagine being a woman and not being a feminist.”

She also said: “I sense that throughout the Southam papers there really is a desire to help promote and develop women… there are just so many talented women in newsrooms across the country now increasingly getting chances. In coming years, the balance will happen.” Luckily, Hughes wasn’t holding her breath.

Discrimination still exists. The majority of empirical studies on the subject have been done in the United States. In a 1996 article in the Newspaper Research Journal, associate journalism professor Kim Walsh-Childers catalogues the extent of the entrenched good-ol’-boy network. Walsh-Childers writes about the frustration of women print and broadcast journalists who, in survey after survey, report continued discrimination in their jobs, from lower salaries than those paid their male colleagues, to being passed over in favour of less-qualified men. “Many women (working at mid-sized newspapers) noted that married women’s salaries are assumed to be supplemental, while men are presumed to be the breadwinner.”

Walsh-Childers concludes: “many of the respondents’ comments suggest that one of the most common ways women deal with sex discrimination is to leave those jobs.” There are always costs associated with employee departures and replacement hiring. But, writes Walsh-Childers: “The most important cost clearly is the loss of women’s talents in areas where they could contribute the most… the dearth of women in top management positions may even be contributing to newspapers’ failure to appeal to women readers.” The problems are compounded when male managers do not hire assertive, strong women. “They are not hiring the same qualities in women they would hire in a man.”

The women themselves are not blameless. A new generation of journalists are marrying and having children. Many of them choose to quit and stay home with their babies, and who am I to criticize their choice?

Many others give up and leave for other jobs in the face of work pressures, lack of promotion, and the still-latent sexism that makes the media the most conservative business in the country (other than the Roman Catholic Church). Who wants to cause a ruckus when the upshot could be the loss of a job? In a shrinking market, with new journalism graduates appearing each year, employees are expendable. Such a climate of fear doesn’t encourage the outspoken to complain. They’re glad just to have a steady job rather than one on contract. Fear is a great leveller of uppity women.

For my generation, being “one of the guys” was the answer. As British journalist Amanda Platell wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “If you wanted to play with the boys, you had to prove you were as tough as they were.” Like other women reporters before me, I was tougher than the men. I could drink them under the table, swap shop talk and laugh at their jokes. To be accepted, I was prepared to be just like them, with the possible difference of having to go into the Ladies’ instead of the Gents’. Not for this gal the dreaded sobriquet of “women’s libber.” Or “ball-buster.” or “bitch”—although many years later I did receive a letter from a reader addressed “Dear Godless Bitch.”

The world outside the newsroom also reminded me that men were still considered in charge while women, apparently, worked gladly for “pin money” until they could find a man to support them. In 1970 I was refused a bank loan because I was a single woman. I still said nothing.

In 1977, while working at the Calgary Herald as a senior city desk editor and then 33 years old, I answered the phone one night and a male voice asked to “speak to the man in charge.” I said I was in charge and could I help him? “No,” he replied, “I don’t want to talk to a goddamn girl, I want to talk to the man in charge.”

I snapped. All those years enduring bad jokes and nude pictures pinned up at various workstations; all the vulgar comments, whistles and catcalls; all the overt patronizing, sexism and lack of respect: all at once, it all came home to roost. What I said to the caller isn’t worth repeating. I think there were a lot of f-words in it.

That was my heads-up moment. From then on, I tried to speak out for myself and for other women. I’d like to think I made some difference, at least in some colleagues’ lives. But I don’t kid myself that the institutional mindset has changed.

In 1989, a task force appointed by Southam Newspapers’ head office, co-chaired by now-Senator Joan Fraser, then editor of the Montreal Gazette, made a series of 10 recommendations to level the playing field for women in the newspaper group. It was ambitious and well-meant, but the report and its recommendations never amounted to much.

The recommendations having to do with work conditions—sexual harassment and parental leave, for example—were quickly adopted. But the crux—promotion of women, opportunity for training and development, even the bold recommendation that at least one woman be included on every shortlist for a senior position—never materialized.

What did materialize was a local backlash from male employees at the Herald, who insisted women were taking all the top jobs in the newsroom.

The response was simple: a pyramid chart pinned to the newsroom bulletin board using numbers supplied by the human resources department. The international symbols of skirts and pants indicated the gender of each employee at every level. The top symbol was a pair of trousers, for the publisher. The next level had two skirts, for the two senior editors in the newsroom. The next tier of editors showed a couple of women, and a sprinkling of female journalists appeared at the news- room level. The bottom level, representing the support staff, was all skirts.

The chart showed, without a single word, the overwhelming numbers of men at all the senior levels but one. The backlash was based on supposition, not on numbers. I suspect it was also encouraged by the simple fact of visibility: in a sea of dark suits, two skirts register louder than the rest.

It took me more than a decade of working to realize the world wasn’t going to change until all women stood up to the demeaning second-class-citizen treatment afforded us by far too many men. I may have come 10 years late to feminism, but when I realized that to be female was to be a feminist, I realized also that the conspiracy of silence had to stop.

As I was talking to a table of guests, a drunken male leaned over, shoved his hand down the front of my dress and fondled me.

Those of us working in a traditionally male occupation had been silent for so long because we didn’t want to lose the camaraderie of our male colleagues. We were embarrassed to admit we were subject to unfair treatment: we had been socialized by our families, churches and schools to believe it was unfeminine to raise a fuss. And we were convinced the harassment didn’t happen to other women, that somehow we brought it upon ourselves.

But, sister, enough was enough. And once your eyes are opened, they can’t be closed to nude pin-ups in the workplace. Once your ears are opened, they can’t be deaf to sexist remarks or vile jokes using gutter words for female body parts. So I was accused—frequently—of not being able to take a joke. Gee, fellows, I just didn’t think it was all that funny.

Nor, may I add, was the incident at the annual Winston Churchill dinner in Calgary, the first year women were allowed to dine with the men. As I was talking to a table of guests, a drunken male leaned over, shoved his hand down the front of my dress and fondled me. my date was dumbstruck. As was I.

To my discredit, I said nothing at the time. And when I tried in the ensuing days to find out who the oaf was, the organizers claimed they didn’t know who was at which table. I wrote a column—my only comeback—about the “conspiracy of silence.” I am still angry that I didn’t scream bloody murder at the time. And, I suppose, just as angry that my companion didn’t punch the guy in the nose. I guess that only happens in movies. Good manners, so to speak, prevailed.

Despite these experiences, my world was not and is not full of sexist pigs. men, as much as women, have been victims of institutionalized thinking, although men have benefited from it more. Most men I worked with and for were great friends; most didn’t put their hands up your skirt, proposition you over a beer, or fondle your breasts in public. Most didn’t behave as if women were little more than meat in stilettos. Most men’s lives have been made better by feminism, if only by giving them permission to be loving and doting fathers, and by eradicating the notion that only mothers can care for children.

As for women’s lives being made better by feminism, that’s obvious. The world today is full of female lawyers and judges, doctors and scientists, engineers and soldiers.

I harbour, though, a measure of contempt for the Judas goats, those women who, like their livestock counterparts, are content to live in comfort while leading others of the flock to their metaphorical deaths. Neo-con groups and many religions spring to mind, as do women I still meet who proclaim they are not feminists, as if this were a good thing. Curiously, after making such a statement they usually talk about such feminist touchstones as equal pay for equal work or the golden opportunities that now exist for women in the sciences.

This is not the kvetching of a woman who never sat in a corner office. I had one for years. At one time, the two top editors at the Calgary Herald were women (Gillian Steward and myself). We were in those corner offices because a single enlightened man appointed us. Publisher J. Patrick O’Callaghan has long since gone, as have the commitments made to women, erased by the pressures of operating a leaner, meaner, purportedly more efficient business. In an age of convergence and profit motive, media want fewer and less expensive employees.

Looking back over a 40-year career, I am not blind to the advances made by women in the media. It is obvious the changes my generation fought so hard to make have long since been made. Young girls today never need to stop and ask whether they will be accepted alongside their male friends in their chosen field; never need to ask if a certain job is only for men; never need to argue that they deserve an education.

Such young women say they aren’t feminists. Perhaps because they don’t need to state the obvious, because the reality of feminism is now well and truly entrenched. Indeed, we have come a long way, baby… er, sister. And there is a long way to go, once today’s feminists get close enough to see their reflection in the glass ceiling.

Catherine Ford is a retired newspaper columnist and the author of Against the Grain: An Irreverent View of Alberta.


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