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melbourne writers festival 2015: keeping up appearances


In 2007, Channel Nine made Jessica Rowe redundant while she was on maternity leave. This was following an incident the previous year when the editor-in-chief, Eddie McGuire, was caught saying he wanted to ‘bone’ her. Rowe has made headlines with her recent book Is This My Beautiful Life?, which bravely explores her public scrutiny, sexual harassment and post-natal depression. Now, Rowe is a familiar face on Australian television, fronting the morning program at Channel Ten with Ita Buttrose.

Like Rowe, Buttrose has faced tough days in the industry, but still dubs it a ‘world of discovery.’ Her time in the field was groundbreaking for women. After deciding she wanted to be a journalist at age 15, she eventually became Editor-In-Chief of Cleo, which was the first publication to have a full frontal male-nude photo and open discussion of sexuality. Not to mention, she was also Australian of the Year in 2013 for her extensive charitable work. With a discerning face and witty one-liners, her strength of character is radiating (and slightly intimidating).

I jumped at the chance to see this dynamic duo speak as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Facilitated by Renata Singer, an author who specialises in feminism, I had little doubt that this would be a very interesting discussion. The conversation was refreshingly frank, revolving around physical expectations in the media, the need for women to start respecting each other and how we are going to change gendered norms.

Media is a tough industry for women. While now outnumbering men in the field, there have been very minor changes since the late 1990s. According to The Conversation, women make up 55.5% of Australian journalists, but only 7.4% are senior managers or editors-in-chief. On top of this, their appearance, personality and mannerisms are under constant scrutiny. Buttrose recounted moments when reviewers said she ‘shouldn’t wear leather pants’ or asked why ‘she has to wear so much makeup’. As for Rowe, who has had a particularly harsh time under the spotlight, she has received comments comparing her to an ‘overly friendly raptor’ and countless criticism towards her hair and laugh. Particularly cringe-worthy was when she recited an article by The Age, which compared her to competitor Melissa Doyle, ‘Rowe has the long limbs and angular face of a model; she is childless and loud.’

‘It does hurt,’ Buttrose commented, ‘Men get away with so much more.’

‘There is still very much a double standard between blokes and women. When women are appointed to these shows, we’re expected to be overnight successes.’

Research shows that the typical female journalist is younger, in their mid-career and generally has less than 12 years experience in the industry. This makes the obstacles facing young professionals entering the workplace a major concern.

‘Nobody dares telling us now what we can and can’t do.’ Both ladies explained that after years of experience, they can now ‘stand their ground’ in the industry. But for a long time, they were trialed by these pressures. ‘One of my bosses once told me to stop laughing so much. That really made me second-guess myself. My laugh is part of who I am,’ Rowe said.

‘You have to be true to yourself, you have to always behave with integrity and courage.’ She expressed that having confidence in your own abilities is vital in getting through these hurdles.

‘It all comes down to how you see yourself.’ Rowe revealed that she was recovering from Botox she received the previous week. ‘I don’t do it because I feel the pressure; I do it because I’m vain. It makes me feel better.’ She considers honesty crucial to becoming comfortable in your own skin.

‘More often, criticism of our appearance comes from other women. We are not gentle enough on other woman…That’s where we have to support each other.’ Her brand of feminism is respecting the choices that others make even if they may be unlike your own. The solution to this, she said, is acknowledging that everyone has different vices and virtues.

When asked how we can change these expectations, Buttrose answered that it needs to come from the ‘top down’.

‘Men need to be part of the process’, affirmed Rowe. Even small things, like having ‘male CEO’s leaving the office early to pick up the kids’, would set an example and take the pressure off women.

‘I think it’s changed a lot.’ Buttrose recalled that in the 1970s, she was required to wear stockings and a black frock.

‘It is going to work, blokes are changing,’ stressed Rowe. ‘People can be so cruel, but then there is also an incredible generosity of spirit by other people.’

‘We need to have a level playing field,’ Buttrose said, ‘I do feel like we’ve stopped for the moment. I don’t think representation is as good as it should be…There is a lack of women in Parliament. We only have two women in the Federal Cabinet.’ The key to fixing this, Buttrose says, is to ‘be a leader’ and to speak up when you see that there is no gender diversity at your workplace.

As a young woman entering the media industry myself, the confidence that both Buttrose and Rowe have is inspiring. Despite their experiences of gender bias and misogynistic attitudes, they remain optimistic that these pressures are eroding. Most importantly, they stress that supporting other women is paramount to creating pathways for change. While installing hope for female professionals, this also speaks to a wider cultural shift in the direction of equality.

The Melbourne Writers Festival is on until 30th August 2015. You can view the program and buy tickets here.


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