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Women's Work

Professional Gatekeeping is Holding Women Back

Male-dominated workplaces rely on a web of behaviors and attitudes, traditions and laws that can be wielded to maintain the white supremacist patriarchy.

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One day in 2019, after a little more than a quarter-century at WXRT-FM, morning news anchor Mary Dixon was told by the relatively new program director at the station, affectionately known as Chicago’s Finest Rock, that she was no longer allowed to be in the main studio after the day’s 9 a.m. newscast. She was, Greg Solk said, “a distraction” to DJ Lin Brehmer, the man alongside whom Dixon had been working for more than two decades. Her history at the station, warm relationship with Brehmer, and professionalism be damned—Solk was the gatekeeper, and by God, he was putting up a gate.

Barred from the main air studio—even if the substance of her “distraction” was to plan the next day’s show—Dixon could see directly into it from her office. “And meanwhile,” she says, “I could see [Solk] going in there, shooting the shit.”

Most women working in male-dominated industries are often met by gatekeepers like Solk, penning them in and/or shutting them out. 

Full disclosure: I was, until recently, a lifelong XRT listener and am something of a Dixon fangirl. She’s an exceptionally skilled reporter and anchor, with a delivery style at once authoritative and affable, as if the smartest girl in class was also funny and shared her headphones with you. When Solk finally pushed Dixon all the way out (of which, more later), she almost immediately landed her next gig: morning news anchor at NPR-affiliate WBEZ-FM, which has since watched its morning ratings grow.

Of course, no matter how stellar their performance, many women aren’t given a chance to take a huge leap up the professional ladder. Sometimes the gate looks for all the world like an impersonal wave of layoffs in a time of industry-wide contraction; sometimes it comes in the form of sexual harassment, abuse, or outright assault.

Before joining XRT in 2017, Solk had been in Chicago radio for decades, producing proto-shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP-FM while still in high school; such is his influence that he’s been called “legendary.” Solk’s last position before XRT was senior vice president of programming and operations at Hubbard Radio, home to competitor station WTMX-FM (The Mix). Solk had been at Hubbard for nearly 20 years before being forced out seemingly overnight in 2016; several months later, he was hired by Entercom (now called Audacy) for XRT.

During his years at The Mix, Solk was among the management figures to whom women employees complained, repeatedly, about long-time morning show host Eric Ferguson, known as a groper of co-workers and “younger female listeners.” In September of this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that a former assistant producer of Ferguson’s show, Cynthia DeNicolo, had filed a lawsuit alleging he’d coerced her into performing oral sex when she started at the station, and once she “summoned the courage” to refuse, routinely blocked promotions for her, eventually seeing that she was dismissed in May 2020. 

The complaints of a second woman, Kristen Mori, came to light a few days after that story dropped. In a court filing, Mori said she was “shocked and disturbed by Ferguson’s offensive touching” and accused management of “turn[ing] a blind eye toward [his] inappropriate and offensive conduct.”

A few days after that, the Tribune reported that one of Ferguson’s former co-hosts, Melissa McGurren, had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, contending that “Ferguson is a serial abuser of women and that for many years, the management of The Mix has protected Ferguson… Solk [and others] did nothing in response to the complaints.” 

After the third report in a little over a week, Ferguson issued a statement: He was “stepping away” from his show, to defend himself against the accusations. 

Meanwhile, over at XRT, Audacy had promoted Solk. Since July 2021, he’s overseen programming and operations strategy for XRT and five additional stations, including sports/talk WSCR 670-AM [The Score]—where Julie DiCaro was an evening and weekend host until, under the old boss, she was laid off in April 2020.

DiCaro’s experience demonstrates that the gatekeepers are not, always, men. “The first thing that happened when [regional president for Audacy Chicago] Rachel Williamson took over was I got laid off and so did Maggie Hendricks [DiCaro’s weekend co-host]. Suddenly we had no women on the air.” 

These layoffs were among several at the time, but somehow, men remained robustly represented at The Score. “People say ‘Oh, we need more women in positions of hiring and firing’,” DiCaro says, “but we need women who want to promote other women.”

DiCaro, now a senior writer and editor at Deadspin, has written a book called Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America and spoken out frequently in interviews and on social media on the issues it addresses. She acknowledges, with a sad clarity of vision, that it’s cost and will continue to cost her: “I’ll never work in radio in this city again.” 

Dixon kept her powder dry for nearly two years, only going public about her final days at XRT as part of a recent Tribune investigative report drawing on interviews with three dozen women (including DiCaro) and published earlier this month.

“It’s not fun to discuss this,” Dixon said recently on WBEZ’s midday show, Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons. “It’s odd to be part of a news story and to discuss bad things that happened to me…. But I also felt a responsibility to speak up.” On the phone a few days later, she adds, “What happened to me was rotten. But there are women there who have dealt with far worse.”

In the time she worked with Solk, Dixon saw her newscasts, salary, and access to tentpole broadcasts she’d long been a part of cut. Then one day, she herself was cut. Her last day was Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. 

That morning, she reported the news expertly in a handful of 60-second newscasts, joked around with Brehmer, and exited the main air studio for the last time at 9 a.m.

“I was asked not to say anything while a press release was prepared,” she says. “I was one line at the bottom. I think Solk thought no one would notice or care. He was wrong.”

When the Tribune reported that “listeners to WXRT-FM had a rude awakening Wednesday when Mary Dixon, the rock station’s longtime morning show news anchor, was missing from the airwaves,” The station’s hand was forced.

The next morning, Brehmer made a vague announcement about changes at the station, wishing nothing but love and good things to Mary and—after 28 years—that was it. Tellingly, six weeks later, Brehmer moved into a new timeslot for the first time since 1991 and XRT threw him an in-studio, on-air party (with a live band!). They didn’t mention Mary once.

Julie DiCaro also took part in the discussion on Reset. Over the course of the segment, she, Simons, and Dixon swapped misogynistic comments they’ve fielded in the past. Like every woman I know, they each had very specific recollections: DiCaro mentioned a “slur for women’s body parts” appearing on a whiteboard; Simons recalled being only one year into her first media job and having a producer “call me ‘sugar lips’”—at which Dixon audibly gasped—“and of course, I did nothing. I was 23.”

Simons, who is Black, represents a demographic facing even steeper uphill battles than either Dixon or DiCaro, both of whom are white. For all that the media’s white women are dismissed by bosses and face backlash in and outside of the workplace, Black women and other women of color are often all-but invisible. WBEZ is notable for the diversity of its staff, but is, by far, the exception that proves the rule. As Ava Thompson Greenwell, professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and author of Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News, has said: “Not as much has changed as it should have, given that it’s 2021.” 

In her book, DiCaro relates a conversation with veteran WNBA reporter Tamryn Spruill about subscription sports news site The Athletic. Initially feted for hiring a surprising number of women, most of them Black, the outlet eventually laid most of them off, those dismissed learning about it on Twitter. “The resounding message from the mostly white, mostly male sports media, even in covering women’s sports,” Spruill said to DiCaro, “is that this is the acceptable treatment for Black women.”

From 2018 to March of this year, Spruill served as editor-in-chief at Swish Appeal, SBNation’s WNBA blog. Leaving to write her own book, she addressed some of the struggles the position brought with it in a farewell post. “On the worst days, I sobbed and considered walking away…. [I didn’t] because my lifelong conviction to make spaces better… wouldn’t allow me to. In the words of the late Civil Rights icon John Lewis: ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’ And this, too, applies to me (the first woman, Black woman and gay woman) becoming editor-in-chief in the first place.”

For all the differences in details, corporate overlords, and tenures, all these women tell stories that share at their core the very thing Solk demonstrated with such exquisite clarity to Dixon: Gatekeeping. 

“Gatekeeping” is more than one thing. It’s a web of behavior and attitudes—norms, mores, habits, traditions, laws—as necessary to maintaining the white supremacist patriarchy upon which this nation rests as voter suppression and anti-abortion legislation

The Solks of the world don’t need to participate in sexual harassment and the Fergusons don’t need to join in telling women they’re “distractions” (Dixon was not the first to hear this from Solk)—their behavior is mutually beneficial even if they’re mutually ignorant. The men who wrote slurs on DiCaro’s whiteboard, the man who called Simons “sugar lips,” the who-knows-how-many men who saw these things and said nothing—nobody had to call a meeting of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club for the web of gatekeeping to function as intended. 

Furthermore, society-wide gatekeeping allows the men at the heart of such stories to go about their days and careers without a second thought for the women who, years later, will still be recalling insults and threats, jokes that were really harassment, harassment that was really abuse, dredging up and airing their own worst days in the hope of supporting other women who have it even worse.

Even Ferguson, about whom there’s been a veritable firehose of stories over the past two months, got to “step back.” Solk, the guy who knew about Ferguson and did nothing, got to move to a new station, attempt to destroy a woman’s career, and from there, keep moving up the ladder. Since the Tribune’s investigation came out, a lot of people have asked Dixon why she didn’t just quit—because, as ever, if a woman is subject to a man’s bad behavior, it’s on her to get out of his way.

Around the start of Solk’s tenure at XRT, I began to notice an odd thing: The ratio of female-to-male acts on the station’s playlists, never great, had gotten worse. You could go hours without hearing a woman’s voice. This, too, is gatekeeping, and it’s everywhere, all around us. When women are told they don’t belong in the spaces they’re already in, prevented from getting where they deserve to be, coerced into sexual relationships, threatened with violence on social media, or just told that it’s naïve to expect anything different—they’re being told what their place is, and who gets to shut the gates.

I’ve since stopped listening to XRT, gravitating instead to WEXT-FM, a public station in, of all places, upstate New York. They play a lot of female artists, the midday show is helmed by a woman, and I’ve even had the chance to be a listener DJ a few times, always spinning at least as many women as men. As far as I can tell, the earth has yet to open up and swallow Albany as a result of such heterodoxy. I wish, though, that I lived in a world in which men’s power wasn’t more important than women’s lives.

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