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Review of Women in the Field: Lunch with Jan Wong

March 24th, 2011     by Jessica Balmer     Comments

While the first panel discussion of the Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism symposium that happened earlier this week at Ryerson University filled me with dread and fear, the second part inspired me greatly. The goddesses must have been smiling because I managed to snag a seat to the sold-out 2011 Atkinson lecture with Jan Wong.

If you’re not familiar with Jan Wong, get acquainted. Wong’s list of accomplishments and controversies shows that she is a gutsy, opinionated, tough-as-nails journalist. Love her or hate her, you have to hand it to her. Wong’s sass and ambition have gotten her where she is today. Despite everything she has gone through in her career: racism, sexism and depression, she has managed to author four books and is penning a new book, Out of the Blue, which looks at the breakdown she experienced following her controversy at the Globe and Mail.

Her talk was titled the Risks and Rewards of Being a Journalist (and she touched on being a visible minority in the field as well.) She began the lecture on a sombre note, mentioning a case where a pregnant female officer was sent in to search a violent female inmate. She was sent in anyway, was attacked and miscarried. Her father, also a police officer told her to “suck it up.” Wong was told, “It’s always 1952 in the cop shop.” Similarly, she joked, “Well, it’s 1953 in the newsroom.”

Wong then changed the tone and told a personal anecdote: Ever since she was young, she wanted to be a journalist. She never wanted to be Superman. Clark Kent never got the scoop. Who cares if you can fly? It was Lois Lane who broke stories.

Wong went on to point out that women need to speak up more, to fight for what you want and just try. “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

The most useful part of her talk were the six steps for success:

1) Have a dream. Identify what you want. Hers was to become a foreign correspondent in China, which she did eventually after working hard and being smarter and more talented than her competition.

2) Learn how to read a balance sheet. In other words hone your skills. Shake yourself and pick up the tools you need. Do something that scares you that you’re not comfortable with. She says she learned business reporting even though she knew nothing about it. She also touts the importance of speaking another language. “It’s the key to uncovering culture.”

3) Position yourself. Learn how to change a disadvantage (we all have one) into an advantage.

4) Don’t be shy. Let everyone know what you want and your real goals.

5) Distinguish yourself. Keep improving on your writing and reporting. Everyday is a new story, a new challenge. “I don’t care what the assignment you’ve been given is. Think big. Write for page 1.”

6) Never assume the job is yours. You may have a job one day, but the next it might no longer be yours, so just put your best work forward.

Despite her past controversies, she is an incredible speaker. Not only is she brilliant and takes no bullshit, it was especially uplifting to see a woman who is a visible minority be successful in such a tough field. Her career and presence is quite impressive, and after the talk I was able to chat with her.

I asked her about fear and how to be brave, and she answered that you just have to go for it. Everyone is fearful and being brave doesn’t come naturally to people, but you just have to jump and the rest will fall into place. Wong also touts the importance of finding a mentor. She simply said to write to people you admire and ask to meet them. Most will say no, but a few generous souls will agree to meet and talk. It’s about perseverance, following up and making connections.

All in all, Jan Wong’s talk was the highlight of the Women in the Field symposium. I left feeling enthusiastic and inspired. The path to a successful career in such a competitive and hard field is still daunting, but it is reassuring to know that there are trailblazers out there that you can reach out to and who are willing to share their tidbits of wisdom.

Tags: advice, media savvy

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