Speaker’s Corner: Tapping the Glass Ceiling
I moved to Berlin, Germany in January, 2011 to work at the foreign desk of a German national daily as part of a six-month fellowship. Editorial meetings were held on the 14th floor of the office building, provocatively located where the Berlin wall used to stand. From the glass windows one can see remnants of the wall on one side and historic East Berlin buildings on the other. The desk editors would pile in one after the other, coffee mugs in hand, dressed in suits without ties, a newspaper casually tucked under the arm of a corduroy blazer. Occasionally, a woman would walk in.
At the foreign desk, I was keen to observe how Germany looked at the world and how global news was tailored for German readers. I brought my own international perspective to the desk, having lived on three continents, and was excited about sharing this with my multilingual, worldly colleagues: Four men who each specialised in a particular region of the world. They didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. After three days behind the computer, I wondered why I was wasting my time sitting in a cold dreary office in Berlin while the Tahrir Square protests were flaring up and Ben Ali was being deposed. Why was I not being included in the editorial process while the world went crazy outside? I spoke to a couple of friends I had in the city. A Norwegian man seemed to have the answer. “You’re a woman,” he said. “German men are completely into being macho.” That could not be it, I thought. Living in Pakistan one idealises the west and imagines that it is free of, at least, some isms; sexism seemed so unimaginably backward.
I was not satisfied with the answer, so I snooped a little further. The prominent German magazine, Der Spiegel, provided some insight. That week’s cover story was written by two women at the magazine, who spoke of the low women-to-men ratio at Der Spiegel, especially at the higher levels. This cover story also quoted a woman in a leading position who talked about never wearing skirts, because showing more skin meant allowing a man to attack you. I spoke to some women journalist friends I had made and they confirmed what I said. Many felt they had been treated like furniture in newsrooms across the country. There was a raging debate in Germany at the time over imposing a 40% quota for women in managerial positions. At the newspaper I was working in, there was one woman among a board of eight editors-in-chief, and among the 30 plus desk editors there only was a woman and she, too, happened to be on maternity leave. I realised then that in Germany if you wanted to be a successful woman, you needed to be a man.
Newsline, where I started my career back in Pakistan, was run by women. We discussed shawls, shoes, gems, military rule and extremism. Most of our military analysis was written by a woman, Ayesha Siddiqa. I talked to my European colleagues about this, especially the women, who often talked about how hard the fight was to progress as a woman in the workplace. I decided it was time for me to write an opinion-editorial on something I would never imagine discussing before: Gender. This was endorsed by my female colleagues, who thought people would stand up and take notice if the judgement came from the “suppressed” Pakistani woman herself. I wrote it exactly how it was: Newsline was run by women, this German paper was not. I never felt that I was dumb until proven otherwise in Pakistan. In Germany, I was the girl who wore lipstick in the morning and probably went shopping in the evening, courtesy my father’s credit card, of course.
When the Libyan uprising began, I happened to be the only person on the desk who had contacts with a freelancer there. My colleagues were surprised and started to treat me with new-found respect. One of them did ask me if it was my boyfriend at Al Jazeera, who supplied me with my contacts. Confused by this question, I realised I had once mentioned a friend who worked at Al Jazeera in New York. The German word for male friend and boyfriend are the same.
Anyhow, the op-ed happened and was happily published. I got emails complimenting me from several women across the country and from my colleagues as well.
The editor-in-chief of the paper was not very amused, however. At the editorial meeting that morning, he mentioned that the piece was written by a “privileged woman from the country of 180 million suppressed women.” One woman at the meeting tried to defend my position and said that perspectives from outside must be valued. The editor-in-chief turned to her and said, “Ah, but you don’t have a dress on.” In my colleague’s defence, it was too cold and dreary to wear anything but pants. I was shocked at the man’s assumption that I was privileged and at his deliberately distorting the argument to be about whether a woman should wear pants or skirts. Subsequently, many women thanked me for this piece and then asked me whether what I had written was actually true. Women’s abuse in Pakistan is so widely covered in the western media that people are hesitant to believe that women in leadership positions do exist in the country. I realised, then, that this was not my fight.
This article was originally published in the May issue of Newsline under the headline “Tapping the Glass Ceiling.”
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