Meagan Hurley: What it means to be a woman in power

Meagan Hurley blog photoBeing a woman is a powerful thing.

That’s the impression I’ve been under since childhood. From my fearless mom to smart, sassy teachers and my favorite fictitious role models (Lois Lane and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), all the great women I aspired — and still aspire ­­ — to be like had drive, a purpose, and was a force to be reckoned with.

Growing up in an environment where women were respected and considered equal (if not superior) to men, I had no qualms about setting my educational and career expectations at the top of the ladder. When I was 17 and decided I was going to go off to college to become an investigative reporter, it never occurred to me that anyone would doubt my abilities because of something as seemingly irrelevant as gender. I considered my womanhood a strength. After all, why would anyone interpret it as anything else?

I began my professional career as a journalist a month before graduating college at the young age of 21. At that time, I joined a small, all­-male editorial staff of a twice­-weekly newspaper located in a suburban Georgia community.

Sure, it was slightly different from what I was used to — a nearly all-­female student newspaper staff — but it wasn’t bad. The guys welcomed me with open arms, taught me the tricks of the trade and offered me the opportunity to write any story that struck my fancy, no matter how big or small. I didn’t matter that I was a woman to them. They saw me a journalist, a co­worker and a friend deserving of support and respect.

The same couldn’t always be said of my sources’ perceptions of me.

It wasn’t long after I started my job before I took over the superior court beat, and began covering the majority of breaking news. I spent copious amounts of time poring over documents and chasing down elected and appointed officials for various assignments. I always found it strange that, instead of returning my calls and inquiries, some officials preferred to speak to one of the guys in the room —­­ any of the guys in the room — ­­ and they would often reach out to my co­workers instead of me, as if somehow I, as a woman, wasn’t deserving of their attention.

One particular official, who was heavily involved in happenings in one of my two coverage areas, never once (in eight months) returned a single phone call or email of mine. This person would regularly opt to contact the desk next door. He also had a nasty habit of calling me “sweetheart” and “doll” when we’d cross paths in public.

While highly inappropriate, condescending, demeaning and just plain rude, the vomit-­inducing pet names and some sources’ refusal to talk to “the girl” haven’t been the extent of my issues as a female journalist.

I remember the first murder trial I ever covered.

It was an adrenaline-­packed, full­-speed four straight days of interesting copy. I was beyond excited to spend my work days in court, from the time the doors were opened in the morning until they were locked at night. Naturally, I made some friends throughout the week. Security workers, bailiffs, ADAs and defense attorneys that recognized me on a day-­to-­day basis would begin to say hello, occasionally let me skip the long security lines, and would politely provide answers for my constant questions.

I was thrilled when a handful of attorneys began noticing me in the courtroom. When I’d arrive early or be the last to leave, they’d come over to my bench, ask me if they could answer any more of my questions and many would stay just to chat about life in the city we both lived. I thought it was nice. I viewed at as a win because I believed I was finally making some friends in this new place.

On the fourth and final day of trial, in the nearly three-­hour period of jury deliberations, I sat patiently alone in my seat awaiting a verdict. I was bored out of my mind, starving and lonely. When one of the defendant’s attorneys came and sat down beside me, I was glad to have someone to talk to.

He asked me for my thoughts on one of his arguments, complimented a story I’d written the day before and told me I was talented. The conversation had taken an awkward turn, but I humored him because I thought maybe he was just being a nice person. I was wrong.

The man, almost 20 years my senior, soon told me of his recent divorce. He said I was beautiful and smart and wanted to know how I felt about going on a date with him sometime.

I awkwardly stared at my notebook ­­ — disheartened, disappointed and mad —­­ and politely informed him that I wasn’t interested.

He left my bench and didn’t talk to me after that. For the coming months I continued to cover court, he was no longer friendly or forthcoming with information pertinent to my stories. Several of those who worked alongside him suddenly became less interested in me, too.

That incident wasn’t the first time I got hit on at work, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay or that it’s something women should be forced to deal with just because we’re women.

Being taken less seriously or losing sources by default just for being a woman isn’t right and it isn’t fair, yet it’s a reality many women reporters face all the time.

It’s high time we speak up, allow our voices to be heard and tell the world we aren’t going to take it anymore because we are smart, strong, talented, and we’re capable of achieving anything a man can do.

Being a woman is a powerful thing. Let’s show the world.