Women in the media — especially visual media — often face issues in the workplace relating to confidence and image, a panel of women journalists agreed at an event on Friday. 

“You have an expectation to look a certain way and to dress a certain way and to be fit and be attractive for the camera,” said Janice Lieberman, an NBC consumer reporter who has worked with the Today Show. “It’s kind of unspoken, but I think that that’s something at least the on-air TV people have to contend with.”

Natasha Verma, an NBC Boston reporter, also said that appearances can weigh heavily on a woman’s career in visual media. “It’s difficult on TV, as well, with viewer perception of how women should look on TV and what’s attractive to them and what’s unattractive,” said Verma, who explained that she received negative comments about her weight while working at another station. 

“When the comments are nice, you feel good,” Lieberman agreed. However, she said, “You can do this huge investigative report, and they’ll say, ‘Your hair didn’t look good today.’ …  Those are the comments you get, … rather than the actual story you worked so hard on.” 

Those types of comments can also come from colleagues, said Laura Colarusso, who serves as the digital managing editor at WGBH. She told one story about an editor who told her that, instead of seeking a promotion, she should settle down and “‘start having babies.’” 

Verma added that when producers at a previous station praised her, they also occasionally tacked on requests to alter her appearance. “They told me, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great job, but we need you to cut your hair up to here so you’ll look older,’” she said. “I mean, it’s like, I’m doing a great job, period.”

Still, Verma said she does not take the comments to heart as much as she did earlier on in her career. “People are going to have an opinion on anything you do, so if you do a good job and feel like you did a good job, that’s really all that matters,” she said.

Students from the Media and Politics Leader Scholar Community, which organized the event, asked the panelists what they think conditions are like for women at more conservative-leaning media outlets. 

“I think Fox expects something different, even if the women who are on the air don’t believe that they have to be that way for their job and have to look a certain way, ... to be shot a certain way …  and wear a lot of makeup,” Lieberman said. “But I think that that’s, you know, the image that they [Fox] want, and they’re packaging it, and people watch it for whatever reason they want.”

She added that she once worked with ex-Fox CEO Roger Ailes and “he likes that [image].” Ailes resigned from Fox in July 2016 following several allegations of sexual harassment. 

Part of the problem, the panelists agreed, is that there are fewer women in media leadership roles. Colarusso recalled one meeting she went to where the majority of attendees were women, but the one man in the room was running the meeting. “It was very illustrative of where we are as a whole,” she said.

Lieberman agreed: “There are a lot of women [in journalism], but they’re not being paid well” or being given many leadership opportunities, she said.

As a result, Verma said that she sometimes finds herself defending stories more ardently to male producers, although she said she was not sure whether this was solely because of her gender. 

Lieberman said that, as a consumer reporter, she often has to over-justify reporting on consumer products geared toward women. “Even if you have stories that you think women care about, even with makeup, or plastic surgery … you tell these men, and they don’t care, and you say, ‘No, my friends care. … So you should listen, because that’s what they’re talking about,’” she said. “I had one producer who said, ‘The way I pick the stories is whether I think my mother-in-law would like it.’”

The effects also become apparent in women’s confidence levels, Colarusso said, citing one statistic that says women will only apply for a position when they believe they meet all of the requirements, whereas men will apply for positions with only 60 percent of the requirements. This has made her realize that “I don’t have to know everything to be good at what I do,” she said. 

Colarusso added that she would like to write a book one day about how she has observed male colleagues speak confidently in meetings on subjects they do not know much about. One potential title for this book? “How to Bullshit Like a Man.”