"Sadly, sexism preys on the insecure. When I was starting out, I would have done anything to keep a job" … Chrissie Swan. Photo: Julian Kingma
Misogyny is the buzzword of the moment. It seems everything and anything - from politicians to entire cultures - are being accused of it, while new articles every week blow the cover of one industry or another and the lady-haters who work within them.
I think it's great. Apart from making really juicy reading, it's important that such candid dialogue has been initiated by women about the sometimes outrageous conditions they've had to put up with over their lives.
What I'm enjoying most about it is the memory lane it is encouraging women to walk down. For many years I have experienced situations that have made me feel worthless and I've never had an accurate word to file them away under. Well, now I do.
It's been great to know that those awful self-esteem-eroding moments aren't mine alone; that women all over the country, for decades, have been living through them, too. That's not to say our lives are a wall-to-wall festival of judgmental and degrading conversations, but occasionally they occur and, man (pardon the pun), are they hard to forget!
One time, early in my radio career, I was told by a male boss that my role was specifically to "be fun, but never funny". The funny bits would be covered off by the man I was working with. At the time I was so hurt by this, and also so angry. But I said nothing. Well, technically I did say something, but the conversation was one-way, two hours after the meeting, in the car alone, and so filled with expletives it would have made my sugar-cane-farmer grandfather blush.
I wanted to tell this guy that in my real life, with my family and friends, I was the funny one. It was so insulting for me, who loves nothing more than making people laugh, to be told that, as a woman, my role was merely to support the man in the show, to laugh at his jokes, but never to "steal his thunder" in the humour department. I was incensed.
Later in my tenure at that job, and after having my first child, I was harassed in my hospital room by phone by the same man. I didn't want to do a live cross the day after my C-section. I'd haemorrhaged quite badly and gone into shock soon after the birth of my baby, and was riddled with guilt for choosing not to breastfeed. I was in a darkened room with a brand-new baby and trying to process the enormous joy and terror of it all – the baby, the surgery, becoming a parent, and the raging hormones that made me cry ALL THE TIME.
Call me crazy, but I didn't really want to talk about it. Not right then. And yet the calls kept coming. And coming. "The listeners deserve the payoff," he said. "They've invested in your journey," he said. "This is part of the deal," he said. I couldn't articulate the reasons why I wasn't in the mood, so I did nothing but cry and feel hunted.
Eventually, when I'd been at home for two days, still walking gingerly and changing the dressing on my wound every two hours, I acquiesced and took a call from the fill-in breakfast team, consisting of a former pop star from the '70s and an Olympic athlete and model I'd never met. I stood in my courtyard, so as not to wake my baby, and cried, mobile phone in hand, waiting for the studio to call me for a live cross after the 7.30am news.
With a sniffly voice I answered incredibly personal questions delivered by an impossibly insensitive guest host that included, "How quickly did you start breastfeeding?" ("Ummm ... I haven't") and "How painful was the natural birth?" ("Errr ... actually I had a caesarean"). My partner watched helplessly and angrily from inside. I was deeply and irrevocably humiliated, and we actually never spoke again about this moment.
There are many more examples of times in my working life when I have driven home screaming the lyrics to Moving Picture's What About Me in floods of snot and tears. We all have them, don't we? Is this misogyny? Or is it just gender-non-specific nastiness? Would a male radio host have been put under the same pressure to do a live cross after major abdominal surgery? And if he was, and wasn't up for it, could he have just said, "Nah, mate, don't feel like it," and would that have been the end of it?
I would absolutely have the courage to do that now, but, sadly, sexism preys on the insecure. When I was starting out I would have done anything to keep a job. And that included putting up with the kind of cruelty that would have me charging to the principal or boss's office if it ever happened to my children at school or at a weekend job.
The saddest thing about all this is that those women who speak up, particularly at the time of the insult, are labelled "difficult" and are whispered about in boardrooms as a candidate for the list of "dames who'll never work in this business again". Because, hey, no one likes a woman who sticks up for herself. Particularly when the attack is fresh.
Thankfully there are now outlets where we can share our terrible episodes and help other women identify that hideous moment when they felt their soul and self-worth was evaporating before their very eyes. Our work ethic, determination and ability to focus on all the other wonderful men and women we work with makes us all carry on regardless – even if we have to limp for a while. Power to us!
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.