Images: Mihingarangi Forbes / Alison Mau / Alex Casey
This year, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, we are celebrating our ‘daring dozen’ – a group of inspirational women kicking ass and proving that girls can do anything. We’ve asked them each the same questions, and we’ll be sharing their unique perspectives over the next seven days.
Today we kick off the Daring Dozen series by presenting the collective wisdom of three women at the top of their game in the NZ media: Sunday Star Times columnist and RadioLIVE Drive host Alison Mau, Radio NZ journalist and The Hui host Mihingarangi Forbes, and The Spinoff Television Editor Alex Casey.
Villainesse: What has been the toughest challenge you have faced as a woman working in the media? How did you overcome it?
Alison Mau: In the 1980s and 90s the workplace harassment in both print and television newsrooms was particularly bad. In the Channel 9 (Australia) newsroom in the early 90s my female colleagues and I recognised it as a kind of guerrilla warfare; we circled the wagons when things got really bad, supporting each other in private, spending late night telephone calls working on strategies to keep the worst affected out of the firing line without affecting anyone’s career prospects. It could only stay under cover for so long though; the Chief of Staff was eventually taken to court for sexual harassment.
People who complain now that they can’t even “make a little joke” in the office because of the “PC brigade” have no idea what it’s like to be the target of sustained harassment, day in day out. Things have changed because they had to change.
Alex Casey: Honestly, the hardest thing for me has been finding the courage to back my own opinions. I’m sure it’s some kind of imposter syndrome, but it took me a really long time to feel comfortable with the idea that my point of view had worth. It’s scary as hell putting yourself out there, especially if you are challenging the actions and behaviours of popular men in New Zealand who have green-slime-spewing fanbases. Without quoting the popular self-help book Feel the Fear and do it Anyway, I’d say just feel the fear and do it anyway (I have not read that book).
Mihingarangi Forbes: I work in Te Ao Māori – the Māori world, it’s sometimes a tricky place to be a reporter because it’s a constant juggle of journalism, protocol, hierarchy and who-knows-who-the-most.
I find some Māori men treat me like I’m ‘younger’, possibly less knowledgeable about things Māori and I’m not often their first pick to tell the story to. I remember during the story my colleague Annabelle Lee and I did on Kohanga Reo we were referred to as “girls” by a prominent Māori broadcaster. We had to have a laugh because we’ve both in our 40s and are both mothers of four children.
I also find as a wahine that my whakapapa is challenged more as if I don’t have the right to affiliate to my iwi. Since I began reporting in 1994 I’ve really flown solo, I don’t come from a prominent Māori whanau, I don’t have a father or grandfather who stands on a paepae reciting our whakapapa, I come from a long line of wāhine and that has been my strength. Women operate in very different ways particularly around the handling of information and storytelling. Most of my leads and leaks come from women who have thought long and hard about sharing the information with a journalist and their decisions are usually not for personal gain but for the betterment of their whanau, hapū or iwi.
How do I overcome this prejudice? I just get thicker skinned. I’ve had a death threat, a number of stalkers but the hardest thing is the people I know who attack me as a journalist rather than discuss the story issue. Last year just before The Hui went to air, Māori TV bosses provided information to a newspaper which alleged I stole clothes after I left Native Affairs. While I’d rather not be on front pages accused of stealing clothes, it was my whānau and in particular my teenage daughters who were really wounded by it because they’re just kids and have no experience of being publicly attacked.
If you had a magic wand, what would you most like to change about the media?
Mihingarangi Forbes: Funding and Spin Doctors.
I work at RNZ and on current affairs programme The Hui, and I’m surrounded by passionate journalists and producers who are dedicated to informing and reporting on issues affecting our communities, whether urban or rural. Funding dictates what we can do and when there isn’t enough then we just can’t get to those places or people and in the end we as a people miss out.
Spin on the other hand hijacks the important stories. In the past decade our industry has been turned inside out we have more public relations companies than ever before.
So my first wave of the magic wand would be to increase funding which would effectively fix the second issue of “too much PR”.
And in one twinkle of my wand I’ve solved two issues!
Alex Casey: I’d wish for a more representative media landscape that reflects society closer, one where all groups are given equal platforms for their voices, and baffled white men aren’t turned to weigh in on matters that do not concern them. If there’s another side wish on the cards, I’m quite mad about ads for razors where you see a woman shaving a beautiful, thin, toned, hairless calf. I’ve never seen that in real life before.
Alison Mau: The assumption that a woman’s voice – and by that I mean both what she has to say, her opinions, and the actual sound she makes when she speaks – is never quite equal to a man’s. An averagely-performing man will often get the gig ahead of a higher qualified woman because it’s assumed his voice carries more authority.
How does the word ‘feminism’ apply to you personally?
Alex Casey: When first I learned what feminism really meant, all those bubbling struggles and frustrations that I had always felt – and seen other women encounter – were suddenly validated as real and in urgent need of change. Everything that I had ever perceived as a young woman to be unfair, or sleazy, or dangerous but ignored in the name of ‘not making a fuss’ couldn’t be ignored anymore. Feminism is all about 'making a fuss' for all women everywhere! Fuss away!
Alison Mau: That depends on your definition of feminism. To me it’s very simple, and not at all controversial; it means equal opportunity, a basic human right. For that reason I guess it’s there in the background of everything I do and say, in the same way my belief in other basic human rights is.
Mihingarangi Forbes: I believe in equality for women and men, whether that’s in the workplace, at home or on the marae. BUT, and here it comes… I believe that within a culture (as in my culture) what I believe is equal and what a Pākehā feminist might think is equal could be completely different. If we accept this then we can live alongside each other, but the moment a non-Māori woman tells me I’m being oppressed by tikanga or kawa then, “Heretaunga, we have a problem!"
What advice would you give to young women who want to work in the media?
Mihingarangi Forbes: Work hard, concentrate on those who need their stories told and don’t get offended too easily. Kia kaha wāhine mā.
Alison Mau: Ask for help. Be prepared to invest in your career. There are fewer and fewer opportunities in the modern media, and the competition is fierce. The ones who get ahead are the ones that are humble enough to know that they don’t know everything.
I’ve coached women who had never appeared on camera before, and some whom management simply didn’t rate as on-air talent, who now have full-time presenting jobs. Funnily enough, it’s often the male presenters who are quick to reject the idea that they might benefit from a bit of help, and they end up stagnating.
Alex Casey: ‘Tis the same mantra that was etched in stone on the cave walls of early civilisation by firelight: Don’t read the comments.