A reader from Norway named Susanna recently wrote with an interesting question:
“As a biologist, I would like to be taken seriously and for people to discuss at a professional level. Unfortunately, the debate often shifts towards my looks, the fact that I am young, female, and inexperienced. Could you write more about how to deal with such people, and how to quickly steer the debate back to a professional level when such situations occur?”
“For example, when visiting a farm recently, my fellow colleagues and myself were referred to as ‘the girls from the city’ in a newspaper article—clearly indicating that we do not know what we are talking about when we discuss rural politics.”
Susanna, I sympathize with your predicament. It’s perfectly understandable that you want news articles to focus on your work, not your physical appearance, gender, or age. I have a few ideas for you which may help reduce the number of times this happens—but truthfully, I’m not sure you can prevent it from occurring entirely.
First, let me take this from a reporter’s perspective for a moment. A reporter’s job is to set the scene, to describe the who, what, when, where, and why of a story. I suspect that many times, the adjectives used to describe you are intended primarily to help readers create an image of who you are. Even if that isn’t the most relevant information in a story, the “who” often helps sell the “what and why.” Depending on the story, your age and level of experience may be relevant.
I’m more troubled by the reference to “the girls from the city,” or any other adjectives used primarily to dismiss your expertise and reduce your credibility in the eyes of readers. Below, you’ll find five ideas that might help.
1. Discuss The Issue With Reporters Before Agreeing To The Interview
It might be worth speaking to reporters about your concern prior to accepting the interview. You might say, “Before I agree to this interview, I was hoping to discuss one thing with you. Some reporters have mentioned my looks and age in their stories, which makes me deeply uncomfortable. Is that important information for you to include, or would you be willing to focus primarily on our work?”
Some reporters may not comply with your request. And in unusual circumstances, some might even disclose your request to the audience. But given the nature of your work, I’m not sure I see much harm in trying to have that conversation prior to an interview.
2. Praise Reporters Who Interview You
You might also be able to use a more subtle approach. If a reporter comes to visit your field site and begins asking you about your work, for example, you may stop for a moment and say, “You know, I really appreciate that your questions are so focused on our work. I’ve dealt with some reporters before who focused on my age, gender, and looks, and that always made me uncomfortable. So thank you for taking me and my work so seriously!”
That compliment may send a signal to the reporter not to focus on those other areas. I suspect that many female reporters will feel empathetic and that many male journalists would want to avoid stepping on a gender landmine. That said, your age, gender, and level of experience may be relevant, depending on the story.
3. Transition Away From Those Topics During The Interview
In some ways, reporters who bring up these sensitive topics during the interview are doing you a favor. That’s because sometimes, they will never ask you those questions directly but will still include those points in their stories.
If you’re asked those questions directly, you might just say, “You know, those questions make me uncomfortable. I’d prefer focusing on the work we’re doing here.” But before you do that, you should know the type of story the reporter is working on. Longer “feature” stories typically include information about your age and background, while straight “news” stories often don’t.
Just be aware that your strong objection to otherwise innocuous questions about your age might catch the attention of some reporters, making them more likely to include that information in their stories. So use a soft touch here, and try not to make your objections too strident.
4. Counter The Objections During The Interview
Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to introduce negatives yourself. But if you think the reporter is leaning toward a “girls from the city” angle, you might try to preempt that by coming up with a compelling sound bite yourself.
For example, you might say: “Some of our critics have tried to discredit us as being from the city, but they ignore the fact that we’ve been living in/working with local communities full-time for the past six years.”
5. Reframe The Issue As a Positive In Your Own Mind
My wife is a biology professor, so I’m quite sensitive to the issue of gender and science. Too often, women are discouraged from going into science or are brought up in environments where it’s not even regarded as an option.
So you might consider how being cast as a “young, bright, attractive” woman in science may influence other people, particularly younger girls who hadn’t considered science as a career. Perhaps some young girl will see your story and awaken to the possibility of science as a career for her, too. Sometimes, all it takes to inspire someone younger is someone older who’s viewed as “cool.”
I recognize that does not apply to every story—especially those that use your demographic attributes to dismiss your credibility—but it may apply to some. Finally, although you might be concerned that mentioning your age or looks is automatically a credibility-buster, I’m not sure that’s always the case. Perhaps you can be seen as young, attractive, and credible.
Thank you for your question, Susanna. I hope there are a few ideas in here that help you as you progress in your career. Good luck!
Do you have any additional suggestions for Susanna? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!