So I have yet to weigh in on “Vermont Has Her Back,” the petition drive seeking gender equity in the state’s media corps. Until now.
I certainly agree with the substance of the letter. There are too many men and not enough women (or people of color, ftm) in the political reporting sphere and, perhaps even worse, on the editorial plane. (Editors make assignments and have final review of stories.) This isn’t a matter of overt misogyny; it’s the result of structural barriers and unconscious bias in hiring and promotion.
(Not addressed in the letter are similar and even more impactful biases in our politics. Something must be wrong (and not just with our media) when Vermont has yet to send a woman to Congress, while New Hampshire ‘s delegation has three women and one man — and not that long ago, all four were women. Plus the governor. Vermont offers a stark contrast.)
The unconscious bias is becoming apparent in coverage of legislative leadership. Now that the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem are both women, the press is on high alert for signs of discord between the two.
A catfight, in other words.
Jill Krowinski and Becca Balint are doing their best to create a positive House/Senate relationship, but differences will inevitably surface. The two leaders will be under intense scrutiny over how they handle conflict. Opportunities for sexist blather will abound.
We’re already getting a little taste.
Take Tuesday’s edition of Final Reading, VTDigger’s daily legislative newsletter, entitled “Balint’s First Big Test.” The Pro Tem, as the story goes, faces an early challenge over public-sector pensions. It’s a big, thorny issue with no easy solutions. Any action will trigger opposition, probably from all sides. The story questions whether Balint will be able to navigate this minefield.
Coming into the leadership position, she was praised for her ability to clearly communicate — not just with fellow senators, but also the public. Now it’s time to see how she’ll use that strength in practice.
The story then cites an alleged communication failure by Balint — but explains it so poorly that I don’t know exactly what the problem is. I guess a key Senator had some ruffled fee-fees, whatever.
Balint apologized to the senator, which is good of her. I doubt a male Pro Tem would have done the same. And I doubt even more that a reporter would put a male Pro Tem under the same microscope.
I don’t recall any stories about Tim Ashe or Shap Smith or Peter Shumlin or the granddaddy of them all, Ralph Wright, soothing the hurt feelings of a member. Quite the contrary; men are praised for toughness and are expected to crack the whip. Women are, I guess, naturally maternal?
The “entirely female” former speaker Mitzi Johnson suffered from these tilted expectations. She took a more consultative and less hierarchical approach to leadership, going out of her way to keep lines of communication open and seeking to build consensus. As a result, she was seen as weaker than male leaders of the past. I sometimes, to my discredit, joined the chorus — essentially arguing that Johnson should have acted more like good old Ralph. I was wrong then, and I see it happening again now.
This has to be part of the reason why Vermont has had so few female leaders. Expectations are higher for women. Scrutiny is unforgiving. The tightrope is smaller and slipperier. Whenever a woman climbs the ladder, her performance is judged more harshly than men in the same position. If she twists some arms, she’s pushy or even bitchy. If she takes a more collaborative tack, she’s seen as weak and unsuitable for higher office.
Feeding into this is the fact that reporters and editors looooove stories about conflict. It’s better clickbait, and not nearly as complicated as actual policy.
The Vermont political press is actively scanning the landscape for signs of House/Senate conflict. When they find it, they will pounce. Krowinski and Balint will be under the microscope. I don’t expect overt misogyny, just a continuation of its quiet, subtle, structural expressions. Male reporters and editors are, by and large, not equipped to realize when they’re perpetuating stereotypes. But they are, nonetheless.