Sports journalism has long been a macho citadel in a still largely sexist profession. This week the citadel was attacked on multiple fronts, with French female journalists calling out rampant discrimination and harassment in a field where “men hire men to talk about men”.

The fightback against sexism was a long time coming, and when it finally struck it did so on television, online and in print.

It involved an angry open letter signed by more than a hundred female sports journalists, a TV documentary revealing decades of sexism in the profession, and an ill-judged “editor’s cut” that backfired spectacularly – forcing one of France’s best-known football pundits into a rare and unconvincing apology.

“Female sports journalists have been calling out sexism for years, but it takes an event for society to exert pressure on the industry,” says Sandy Montañola, who researches gender inequality in the media at the University of Rennes 1.

“Now we have one.”

The ‘event’ kicked off on Sunday evening with the airing of “I’m not a slut, I’m a journalist”, a documentary by sports journalist Marie Portolano in which several several female colleagues spoke candidly about the derogatory comments, lecherous advances and lurid abuse they routinely endure at work, in the field or on social media. Broadcast by French channel Canal+, it highlighted how some women sportscasters are still cornered into insubstantial roles where they are mostly asked to look good.

Even as the documentary was being aired, news that Canal+ had censored a segment focusing on its star football pundit Pierre Ménès rapidly went viral. The cut, first reported by news website Days, included a scene in which Portolano confronted an unapologetic Ménès over an incident in 2016 in which he lifted her skirt, off air but in full view of staff and the audience in the studio.

The hashtag #PierreMenesOut soon trended on social media along with clips of the pundit’s notorious antics, including video footage of him forcibly kissing two female colleagues. By then, a group of female sports journalists had fired a fresh salvo, denouncing the “discrimination, harassment and marginalisation” they routinely endure in an open letter published by French newspaper Le Monde.

“It is time for us, female sports journalists, to unite and put pressure” on the industry, they wrote in the letter signed by 150 journalists. “We intend to hold the ground,” they added. “It starts now.”

‘No sanction. No apology. Never’

The open letter called for women to be “better represented, better protected and better valued” in sports media. It pointed to figures from France’s media watchdog, the CSA, showing that women’s voices accounted for just 13 percent of radio and TV sports coverage in France last year.

While the total number of female journalists in France now matches that of men, the parity conceals huge discrepancies in terms of subject areas and status. Thus, women still only account for 13 percent of all sports journalists, with male colleagues firmly at the helm.

In this context, “voicing feminist views is very difficult, because it comes at a cost for one’s career,” says Montañola. “Female journalists need assurances that they will be protected if they dare to speak out. Right now, it is still not the case.”

Among the journalists who spoke out in the Canal+ documentary was Charlotte Namura-Guizonne, a former fixture of France’s most popular football show. In a series of tweets posted during the broadcast, she recalled being “humiliated and insulted” during an advertising break, in full view of colleagues and the audience.

“No sanction. No apology. Never. Traumatised and that feeling of not being protected,” she wrote. She did not name her abuser, but cited the incident as one of the reasons she left the show in 2019.

As for Ménès, he was forced into a contrived apology the next evening as Canal+ sought to limit the damage. Appearing on the C8 sister channel, Ménès expressed “deep regret” over the skirt incident, though he blamed the times as much as his behaviour. His gesture was “intolerable in the climate of 2021″, he said, lamenting the fact that, due to the MeToo movement, “one can no longer say or do anything”.

As Camille Chaize, a spokeswoman for the French interior ministry, pointed out in a tweet posted earlier in the day, kissing someone without consent “is a sexual assault punished by law” of up to five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($89,560), regardless of MeToo. The next day, Marlène Schiappa, a deputy interior minister, warned that the pundit’s conduct may only be the tip of the iceberg.

“We are speaking about Pierre Ménès because there are videos and women speaking about him,” she told RMC radio. “But there are other Pierre Ménès in the world of television and I want them to know that their fame does not protect them.”

Meanwhile, Portolano has begged viewers not to let the Ménès furore overshadow the core message of her documentary: the women speaking out against sexism and harassment. Their voices were broadcast without filter, she insisted.

Just not sport

The everyday sexism that makes up the base of the iceberg comes in many forms. They range from the derogatory remarks that chase girls away from sports and sap journalists’ self-confidence to varying degrees of physical and psychological harassment.

At the 2018 football World Cup in Russia, FRANCE 24’s Kethevane Gorjestani was one of several female journalists to be sexually harassed by a fan during a live report. The sports editor had to push back the loutish fan as he talked over her report before kissing her on the neck.

“Sadly this (and worse) happens to us female sports reporters regularly, especially when covering football,” Gorjestani tweeted after the incident. “By all means sing, dance and celebrate your team, but don’t kiss me, don’t grope me and let me do my job,” she wrote, adding the hashtag #DeixaElaTrabalhar (“Let her do her job”) in reference to a campaign launched by Brazilian sportscasters earlier that year.

The day before, Julia Guimarães, a reporter for Brazil’s TV Globo, suffered a similar assault when a fan tried to kiss her on the cheek. She promptly hit back, warning the assailant to “Never do this to a woman”. After a third incident involving one of its journalists, who was groped by a fan, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle wrote on Twitter: “Sexual harassment is not okay. It needs to stop. In football, and elsewhere.”

While social media platforms have sometimes allowed female journalists to denounce cases of harassment, they have also brought the abuse levelled at them to a whole new level.

“Women are not the only ones to suffer from online harassment, but the abuse they endure is especially toxic,” says Montañola. “It is heavily sexualised and often intrudes into their private life.”

The hateful bile that female journalists are subjected to online was exposed in an award-winning video released in the US in 2016. It featured male fans squirming on their stools as they read actual tweets directed at female sportscasters, face to face with the women targeted. The tweets ranged from the unfunny (“sounds like a nagging wife”) to the downright sinister (“I hope you get raped again”). One read, “This is why we don’t hire any females unless we need our cock sucked or our food cooked.”

“The abuse levelled at female sports journalists is especially vicious,” says Professor Suzanne Franks, from the journalism department at City, University of London, for whom it needs to be part of a wider conversation about online abuse.

“This is an issue for the tech platforms to address, as well as newsrooms and the broader public,” she adds. “You shouldn’t have to be especially thick-skinned to carry out this job.”

‘Sport does not belong to men’

Franks says the grievances voiced by female sports journalists in France are indicative both of an “industry-wide problem” and of widespread sexism in sport. “There’s a lot of harassment of female journalists per se,” she explains. “In this respect, sport is a particularly bad example of a wider problem.”

While other sexist bastions – like business and political journalism – have gradually opened up, progress in sports has been frustratingly slow. The same can be said of the media’s attention to women’s sports.

In the open letter published by Le Monde, the signatories lambasted an entrenched culture of “men hiring men to talk about men”. They pointed out that women’s sports account for a mere 18 percent of sports coverage on French TV – a dismal figure even though many Western countries fare a lot worse.

“We’ve seen some improvements in recent years in terms of paying more attention to women’s sports,” says Franks. “But money is the real driver. The amount of sponsorship money going into men’s and women’s sports is incomparable. Until we reach a better balance, progress can only be limited.”

The lack of investment in women’s sports is known to discourage female journalists from covering them. While she credits women with addressing important issues that had long gone unreported, such as athletes’ experience of pregnancy, Montañola stresses their reluctance to be boxed into a gender-specific category that is treated as low priority and implies that male and female journalists necessarily treat different subjects.

In 2019, the women’s football World Cup, organised on French soil, offered a rare opportunity to dedicate money and resources to the women’s game – the kind normally only afforded to female athletes at the Olympics.

“There was money to spend, so female journalists got involved. But they don’t want to be limited to women’s sports the rest of the time, because it means missing out on the big male events that are considered more important,” says Montañola. “They have to make career choices in a highly competitive industry, after having completed highly competitive studies. As long as the top sporting events are male, they will want to cover those.”

While bridging the enormous financial gap between men’s and women’s sports will take years if not decades, addressing the gender imbalance in newsrooms will offer a quicker fix, says Montañola, suggesting that female journalists will have greater latitude to choose subjects once they enjoy strength in number.

“Because women are so few, they are under pressure to conform to the way newsrooms function,” she explains. “You need to reach a critical threshold in order to have an independent voice.”

The notion of strength in numbers underpins the open letter signed by 150 female journalists, for whom “having more women in the newsrooms will help rout out sexism,” at least in part. “In 2021, the subordination of women in sports newsrooms is no longer acceptable,” they wrote, stressing that “sport does not belong to men”.

Having long researched the matter, Franks says she is heartened by the commitment and enthusiasm voiced by female sports journalists, despite the hurdles they face.

“We try to encourage young female journalists who are interested in sports to have a go,” she says. “And we get plenty of feedback about how much they love it and the solidarity there is between them.”

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