Pink flak jackets and babies: there’s more to women in the field

It was easy to find inspiration at Ryerson University’s all-day symposium about women in journalism.

One seasoned journalist dedicated herself to promoting on-air representation of women after listening to 5 hours of CBC radio without hearing a single woman’s voice. Another was a cub reporter when an editor told her she was a “mediocre” employee, but everyone wondered what she’d be like in bed. Another raises triplets while hosting a TV news show.

The symposium started at 10 a.m., and, save for a short lunch-and-mingle, went non-stop till 6 p.m.. J-Source covered it live all day and lots of people joined the conversation via Twitter (#womeninfield). How do you prepare for a full day of live blogging? It helps to bring snacks.

The morning panel focussed on work/life balance, largely on bringing up babies while meeting deadlines — CBC News Toronto co-host Anne-Marie Mediwake had triplets, freelance writer Philip Preville had twins: one presenter later remarked that she’d attended the same panel 20 years earlier, where the issues (absence of affordable daycare, the unpredictable and demanding nature of the job) were the same.

Journalism tends to be a cult, Ryerson school of journalism chair Suanne Kelman said. It helps to have hobbies (and no, reading the news doesn’t count). “Being a journalist is not going to exempt you from being a human.” Besides, an outside life is rife with stories to pilfer.

In another discussion, Reporting in Risky Situations, the conversation moved from pink flak jackets to sexual assault to the stories only women can get. The panel included Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Sonia Verma and Toronto Star terrorism reporter Michelle Shephard. “Since 9/11, it’s not that you’re caught in the crossfire, it’s that you’re targeted,” Shephard said.

Many presenters stressed the importance of having a strong mentor —- man or woman. National post reporter Kathryn Blaze Carlson remembers on editor’s advice: “Try to remember that as hard as it is to see it, it’s ten times harder for them to live through. Tell their stories. Cry when you’re alone at night.”

In Jan Wong’s Atkinson lecture, she talked about being pigeonholed to cover all things China because of her appearance (even though she’s not Chinese). She offered a set of rules journalists should follow, including turning disadvantages into advantages (Wong dedicated herself to understanding Chinese culture). It’s also important to tell people what you want, and fight for it — no one is going to hand it to you. My favourite Wongism: “It doesn’t matter what the assignment is: write it for page 1. Think big.”

She openly described the depression that set in following that now-infamous Globe and Mail column and the Globe‘s public stance (against her). “I’m not depressed anymore. But if I was still working for the Globe, I would be.”

I could probably go on and on about the inspiringly talented, driven panellists, who approached these tired old issues of quality with candid humour and insight. But it’s probably better to just read my liveblog of the event.