(WOMENSENEWS)–Charlotte Gauthier didn’t immediately understand what a French elected official meant when, over lunch with other colleagues, he compared her to Janine Skorsky of the "House of Cards."
Gauthier, in a recent phone interview, said she hadn’t watched the Netflix series. But at the end of the meeting a colleague told her that Skorsky is depicted as a political reporter "who sleeps around to get information."
Gauthier, a reporter for the French national radio station Radio Classique, didn’t reveal the name of the lawmaker. She is one of 40 French female journalists who signed a May 4 open letter detailing the sexism and machismo they face covering politics that was published by the national newspaper Liberation.
In their letter, the journalists denounced inappropriate remarks and overtures by male elected officials and staffers.
"Ah, you are walking the streets, you are waiting for your client?" a lawmaker asks them as they are entering the Parliament, according to the letter. Or a minister whispers to one journalist who is wearing a dress, "it would be better if you had nothing underneath." Or a political staffer inquires about a vacation by asking if she is "tanned everywhere."
The journalists say they also receive regular text messages from elected officials, advisors and sometimes spokesmen. "A piece of information, a drink," a message will say. At other times, repeated invitations for dinner, if possible, on a Saturday night. None of the men’s names are divulged either in the open letter or during interviews with Women’s eNews.
"I have the feeling that I am paying for something that I should not," Nathalie Schuck told Women’s eNews, in a recent phone interview. "I think that a man does not face such a situation . . . We deal with it but it is not normal."
Schuck has covered national politics for 15 years and spent four years, from 2008 through 2012, covering the presidential term of Nicolas Sarkozy. She works for the newspaper Le Parisien/Aujourd’hui en France.
She remembers being blackmailed by a male politician who insisted on taking her out for dinner. "He started by not answering my calls. But he would send me text messages punctuated with smileys saying ‘if you don’t go for dinner with me, I won’t give you anything,’" Schuck recalls.
But Schuck says she never took the bait. "I don’t yield to this type of blackmailing. I share my dinners with my close friends and relatives and certainly not with politicians."
It was frustrating though. "It cost me a news source," she says.
Schuck has more similar stories to share, as do the other female journalists interviewed by Women’s eNews.
Given the high odds of getting harassed by a source, Schuck is careful to cultivate many. "If you get upset with one of your sources, you can go to the others," she says. "If you become hostage of your only source, it will be hard . . . You need to have a big Rolodex."
A Fine Line
Journalists, who need to build relationships with elected officials and their staff to gain background information, often walk a fine line with sources. That line is even finer when the journalists are women working in a male-dominated sphere. "As long as politics will be dominated by heterosexual men mostly in their 60s, nothing will change," reads the letter published in Liberation.
In 2014, the French Observatory for Inequalities found that only 27 percent of lawmakers and 25 percent of senators are women. The current French cabinet, however, is more balanced, with 16 female ministers and secretary of states out 33 members.
Not only journalists but female politicians and parliamentary assistants also face sexism from their male counterparts. A Tumblr, Sinon Je Fais de la Politique (And Besides That, I am in Politics), that launched on March 8, 2014, encourages women who work in politics to speak out against the sexism and machismo they face.
In the U.S. the opposite is happening for some male elected officials, as they try to avoid being alone with their female staffers. In a survey conducted among women working in Washington, D.C., the National Journal found that many female aides have been "barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression."
Carine Becard, a political reporter at the national radio station France Inter, says female journalists face even more sexist behaviors and inappropriate solicitations during the summer, when skirts and dresses are more commonly worn for comfort and more skin is shown.
Becard, who spoke in a recent phone interview, is still smarting from an incident that took place a year ago when she went to lunch with a male politician. They were supposed to discuss politics but the official instead turned the conversation to her outfit. She was wearing a black dress but, she says, didn’t realize that it was somewhat transparent. Without embarrassment, the official asked her: "You are wearing a beautiful black dress but I can see through it to the color of your bra. Your bra is green and I would like to know why green."
Becard said she needed a few seconds to gather her thoughts. "I was expecting anything but this. I was sputtering and tried to move back to our conversation but until the end of that lunch he kept asking why my bra was green."
Becard felt humiliated, diminished to the color of her bra. "All the questions related to politics that I was asking him didn’t matter. I felt useless. I felt I was there to entertain him. It was very disagreeable."
No Outside Help
Becard, Schuck and Gauthier all said they chose to handle these situations on their own. They didn’t report them to managers or even file complaint.
"We do not go and seek help from outside," says Schuck. "When politicians behave that way with us, it is a way to infantilize us. It is a form of paternalism. If we go and seek help from one of our supervisors, we, ourselves, embrace this role of little girl."
While Schuck is quite sure that a U.S. female journalist would file a complaint, she says French culture has taught women otherwise. "In French culture, women internalize early on that they are preys," she says. "So the French woman somehow thinks it is a problem that she will deal with over the course of her life. As a result, she also lives with it in the workplace."
But the three women, along with the 37 others who signed the letter, wanted to send a warning and use the power of journalism to expose a widespread problem that goes far beyond politics.
"We managed as journalists to point out a problem," Becard says. "But I believe that in a lot of workspaces women are facing discrimination and sexism. As long as we don’t break this glass ceiling and don’t have as many female executives as men, it won’t change. Attitudes change when you start having more women around the table."
After the publication of the letter, the three women said they received messages of support from other female journalists who do not cover politics but also face sexism.
Will a younger generation of men entering politics be less inclined to sexist attitudes? The text published in Liberation suggests it will be so. It reads: "Because some, often younger, apologize for falling into the traps of the elders. A factor of generation and, maybe, because of feminist mothers."
The three journalists interviewed by Women’s eNews disagreed with that view. "I didn’t oppose it being in the op-ed because the majority of us thought so," Becard says. "But I see young politicians in their 30s and 40s acting the same way."
Political parties offered no reaction to the open letter. However, Schuck, Becard and Gauthier say they all received phone calls and text messages from some of the men whose behavior was denounced in the letter. "Some of the men targeted in the letter contacted me and other female journalists to congratulate us for speaking up and showing support. They are in denial of what they are doing. It was mind boggling," says Schuck.
Sebastien Huyghe, a spokesperson for the ring-wing UMP party, condemned the behavior described in the letter. "Unfortunately there are some individuals who have unacceptable behavior and whoever these individuals are, we firmly condemn this kind of aggression," he said in a phone interview.
But Huyghe says parties have no way to take any steps to address the issue since names are not revealed in letter. "It is not about the political party, it is about the men."
In a phone interview, Claude Roiron, national secretary for gender parity and women’s rights for the left-wing Socialist Party, agreed. "These are behaviors tied to individuals, if we assume they exist," she says.
Roiron adds that if the incidents described in the letter are true, the journalists should file a police complaint of sexual harassment.
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