Note: I don’t normally post off-topic issues like this to The Muckraker but since it involves my experiences as a young journalist, I thought I may as well. Also, The Muckraker has become my de facto home online. It feels odd to post elsewhere, even though I have a blog for more personal issues.
As a woman, I consider myself very lucky: I’ve never experienced sexism. Or if I have, it was too subtle to notice. It’s sad that I think this makes me privileged – not being subject to sexism should be a right – but not everyone has caught up with the feminism movement yet.
Yet I do face one type of prejudice pretty regularly: ageism. Every week, I hear a derogatory remark about my age and perceived lack of wisdom/experience.
Here’s the context: I’m 23 but I look a fair bit younger. I have a baby face. Normally, I ignore nasty remarks but the camel’s back was well and truly broken today. During a conversation – in which I didn’t seek advice or try to talk about my book – the person I was meeting told me they’d heard about what I was working on. They then proceeded to lecture me why it wouldn’t be published, mostly involving my youthful naiveté. The implication was that I hadn’t thought through the risks involved. What really bothered me, however, was the tone: that of an adult remonstrating with a naughty child about what they’d done wrong. It was utterly patronising.
Maybe this person is right – maybe the book won’t materialise. Maybe it will and will be the worst thing ever written. What bothers me was not her criticism of the book but the assumption that I was young and consequently don’t know what I’m doing.
I’ve been a reporter for eight years. In that time, I’ve received some cool recognition, including an award from Sky News and a nod from Stanford University. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a hell of a lot to learn – I do and I’m always willing to listen to the folks who’ve been there/done that. If anything, all my achievements say is that I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. Yet I’ve had to work so hard for them. It didn’t come easy and it still doesn’t. I bust my guts on every day. I’ve had many knockbacks. There isn’t a clear path to doing what I love so I’ve had to pave one myself. Over the last 15 months, I’ve given everything I have to the book. I’ve financed it myself, worked on it every night until the wee hours and juggled other work commitments while trying to make everything else “fit”: family, friends, social life. I’m sure many women can sympathise with that last line.
None of this seems to matter to these folks. They dismiss everything I’ve worked so hard for as if it’s meaningless because I’m 23 and haven’t lived long enough yet.
I try not to publicly rant about individuals or personal issues but I’ve experienced so many of these conversations over the last two years. Sadly, this incident was not the worst experience I’ve had.
A local charity I wanted to interview was struggling; their clients were searching for certain documents and coming up empty. Public records laws are my specialty so I offered to help, not in return for the interview but because their cause is one very close to my heart.
To say I had my head ripped off would be an understatement. The head of the charity told me that she didn’t need “someone my age telling her how things worked.” The only reason I’d offered to help was because I heard said lady expressing confusion as to how to go about getting the documents. I was so shocked I didn’t bother replying – what could I do? Show her my CV and a birth certificate?
She then went on to criticise my attire (sweatshirt, blouse and grey trousers with brown shoes) as well as my hairstyle. I doubt she’d have had the gall to be so rude to someone 10 years older.
The same person promised me an interview with one of her clients. Four times, we arranged to meet. Each time, she would order lunch. Her client would fail to turn up. She would make excuses for him, promise that we would rearrange and then leave without settling her bill, leaving me to pay it. When this happened for the fourth time, I gave up. I realised that the client probably wasn’t aware we were meant to chat. She was taking advantage of me, knowing I didn’t have an expense account. Would she have treated an older reporter from The Irish News in the same way? Probably not. The total bill for her lunches and wine came to £60. I chalked it up to a lesson learned.
I wish I could say these incidents were isolated. They’re not. I have to deal with insults about my age in the same way a pretty woman has to deal with cat calls.
I don’t mean for this post to be relentlessly negative. For every naysayer, I have 10 supporters cheering me on. The support I received last night after tweeting about my experience was incredible.
I wanted to write about this, though, so that people are aware that it’s an issue. In North America, young people are praised for trying to get ahead. They’re encouraged to take the initiative and make things happen.
In Northern Ireland, a young person taking the initiative is the equivalent of a career mum in the 1950s. They’re sneered at for stepping out of line and not knowing their place. Is it any wonder they’re leaving?