London, UK – Our job as journalists carries with it an inherent risk that affects us all, irrespective of our gender or ethnic background, because we go to places and events that people are trying to get away from: disaster zones, violent confrontations, and unrest.
However, the way that that risk plays itself out can be gender-specific.
In the field, being a woman can disarm aggressiveness and diffuse tension in interactions with authorities who have the power to facilitate or block access and passage.
That same “female factor” can also spiral out of control and turn into a threat of sexual assault. We heard horrific stories of American female journalists being attacked during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. There are many other cases we did not hear about because the victims are not Western.
They don’t have the same access and publicity; they may not be as comfortable talking openly about an issue that’s considered private and sensitive in some cultures, or they may worry that any frank discussion could portray them as weak and incapable of braving the dangers of field journalism.
The sexualisation of women at the expense of their intellectual capacities is a wider social dynamic that can creep into the media field as well.
For instance, it is one thing to have male interviewees be extra-attentive to a female journalist; it is another for that female journalist to experience a cloud of unwanted and uncomfortable sexual energy hanging above what should be a professional interaction.
It is one thing for a conservative man to act modestly around a female journalist; it is another for him to treat her as if she is a sexual temptress who belongs in the private sphere of a home and not the professional world.
Within media organisations, female journalists have made huge strides, and are regularly given breaks – in my experience, some of the most supportive bosses I have had have been men.
It is common in today’s world for women in their 30s to be executive producers, correspondents and photographers. It is hard for me to imagine that there was a time – when these same 30-something-old women were still children – when men dominated those jobs.
“My hope is that as a journalistic community, we are able to cross into the territory of an honest conversation about issues affecting female journalists in the field and within media organisations.”
But women still have to deal with issues from that bygone era, like the pressure on female reporters and anchors to maintain their good looks. Unlike men, most women are not allowed to age gracefully on screen.
Women can also find themselves navigating a rigid culture of male bonding from which they are excluded.
After-hours meetings over a drink or private conversations with superiors are spaces where access to decision-makers is established, and interpersonal relations are developed.
This is not something you can put your finger on, it may not even be conscious; rather, the culture of male bonding is rooted in unspoken beliefs about who should be included in the decision-making process, and assumptions about which gender has more worthy ideas and contributions to make.
I consider myself lucky to work with and learn from some talented men and women and to be in a profession that feeds my boundless curiosity about the world, and allows me to bear witness to incredible and at times heart-breaking events – from the war on Gaza, to tens of thousands occupying Wall Street in New York, to elections in Lebanon, to the ravages of poverty and disease in India and sub-Saharan Africa, to refugees stranded in the middle of nowhere on the Iraqi border, in the depth of the Algerian Sahara, and in no man’s land between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
I have met and been humbled by wonderful people along the way; unlike international journalists who come and go, they are people who are stuck in difficult situations because of fate or circumstance.
Throughout all my experiences I have often found myself being the only woman on the team, and I consistently receive a great deal of support from my co-workers.
Male producers keep an extra protective eye out for me while reporting from locations known for a high incidence of sexual assault; a colleague once insisted on giving me his flak jacket in the middle of an unexpected street battle while we waited for more to be sent to the scene.
My hope is that as a journalistic community, we are able to cross into the territory of an honest conversation about issues affecting female journalists in the field and within media organisations.
This is not about differential treatment for anyone; this is about dialoguing about things that we have only just started exploring.
It is factually wrong to say that these dynamics do not exist – one only needs to look at how many female journalists were attacked in Egypt to see recent and graphic evidence that they do. Equally, I don’t think we’re served by turning the discussion into a narrative of female victimisation.
As such, I believe that our dynamic and ever-evolving journalistic culture is served better by engaging with these issues in a way that’s constructive for everyone – female journalists and fellow male colleagues alike.
Zeina Awad is the co-host of Fault Lines. You can follow her on Twitter: @zeina_awad
A version of this piece has been published today as part of the collection No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters, compiled by the International News Safety Institute.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.