I had been a professional reporter for about three weeks before I experienced subtle sexism for the first time in my journalism career.
“Are you the new little girl writing for the newspaper?” a top county official, a male, asked in a friendly tone.
I was 22 years old and covering county government and politics. And brand new at the job. But, there was nothing “little” about me, as a grown woman in a professional role. Would he have called a grown man a “boy?”
I shrugged it off, answering yes. I didn’t want to come across as abrasive. But I didn’t like it.
I had been a professional reporter for about three months before I experienced blatant sexism for the first time. I was tackling some tougher subjects. There were two groups of powerful, political circles fighting over an FAA certification that was necessary to apply for grants, which meant their financial livelihood.
Each group represented an airport. One was a small, county airport used mostly by wealthy locals who could afford to fly personal aircrafts. The other was a former Air Force base turned air park that served (and still does) as an economic engine for a multi-county region, employing at that time more than 10,000 people before the shipping company pulled out and devastated the community.
But because the airports were close in proximity, only one could have the certification. I had been writing about the battle. My editor had editorialized about the economic impact.
The morning one of the stories published, the phone rang a few minutes after I arrived at the office.
“Hey, you little girl. You little b*tch,” the caller angrily breathed into the phone. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He went on to tell me that I wasn’t smart enough to understand the issue.
Sexism manifests itself across a spectrum. As a woman, the best way to become a leader — either at work or in your community — is not to pretend that sexism doesn’t exist, but to combat it directly.
During my first year as a reporter, I made a point to wear a lot of suits. I avoided discussing my personal life, especially when asked if I had any children or a husband at home, because I didn’t want to provide any ammunition for someone to see me as weak.
I requested to tackle the hard stories, such as a politics, business and government. I was often the only woman in the room in meetings, seated between a sea of crew cuts and black and navy suit jackets. I literally climbed the county courthouse in heels. I volunteered to wade through dirty, rat-infested underground tunnels with the men from the engineer’s office. It made for an excellent story.
When I was promoted to my position at The Press, I did it all over again.
My co-workers know by now that if someone sends a letter to the editor and addresses it “Dear Sir” by default, they’re about to get an earful. More than once someone has come in from the street and asked for the editor, only to be surprised when a woman younger than 30 years old greets him or her at the counter.
I say “him or her” because women are just as guilty as men at believing a woman can’t serve in a leadership position.
In college I read a book that changed my outlook on life: “It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.” Based on data from a national survey, the book related that even at the highest levels of professional accomplishment, women are significantly less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to run for elective office.
They’re less likely to be recruited, to consider themselves qualified and to express a willingness to run for a future office. According to the authors, this gender gap in political ambition persists across generations, despite contemporary society’s changing attitudes towards female candidates.
I think this theme transcends past politics, and throughout every leadership role.
Madison County has a great group of women elbowing their way up the ladder, whether it be in a corporate office, health care, business, politics or law enforcement. I wanted to celebrate those women, as well as inspire the next generation of local leaders in this issue of Milestones.
I’m happy to say many of the women who submitted responses for this section said they have never felt as if a roadblock faced in their careers or community leadership role was gender-related. I think that’s great. That shows progress. But there is more work to do, and it starts with us.
Young and old, women should know this: you are smart enough, you are qualified enough and you are good enough to do anything you want to do. Demand respect, and give respect. Reach out and grab it.
And remember, little girls grow up to be strong, leading women.
Andrea Chaffin was editor of The (London, Ohio) Madison Press. Her last day in that role was Wednesday as she is pursuing another opportunity.