I can barely button up my jacket. Tired and cranky, I eschew dieting to remain a (shocking!) size 14. This coincides with a new look on air: anchors sitting on stools (high backless chairs, not faecal matter). There’s nowhere to hide. My wardrobe is in conflict with its contents. Buttons are busted and skirts unzipped, as I squeeze stomach sausage into its casing.
Enter Diane von Furstenberg. (Not literally. The former German princess, and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is based in Manhattan.) Diane is famous for the wrap dress, which is part-robe, part-kimono.
It doesn’t matter how many muffins are scoffed or babies birthed, you’ll fit into her elasticised creations (or the affordable rip-offs). “I’m all about empowering women,” she says.
Most women’s clothes are made for models with the bodies of slim-hipped boys. Much like the Earth, I bulge at the equator. “Wow, it’s true what they say. You don’t snap back the second time,” a fellow reporter says, as if I’m a rubber band.second time,” a fellow reporter says, as if I’m a rubber band.
“At least the baby’s healthy,” I snap. But after weeks of emails like “Tracey is bursting out of her jackets and it looks DISGUSTING. Is your newsreader still pregnant?” and “Welcome to the news. I ate all the pies!”, my folds of flesh are wrapped in fabric, like The Mummy.
Women are judged every day on what they wear or don’t wear.
In 2006, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly delivers a Ramadan sermon blaming rape victims for dressing immodestly.
“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat?” he asks. “The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
As I read the intro to this story my voice quavers. I can barely contain my outrage at the image of women as “uncovered meat”.
After the bulletin, I wander over to the water cooler, shadowed by a senior producer. “Hey, Trace, you know that conversation we had over the phone?”
“What, the one about me going behind the scenes? Am I no longer considered ‘hot’ enough to be on camera now I’m a ‘mummy’?”
“No, of course not. We want your experience on the production desk to help the new recruits.”
BUT IT COMES AT A COST. I CAN’T STOP CRYING. CREEKS LINE MY CHEEKS. IT’S SO UNFAIR THAT WOMEN ARE TREATED LIKE THIS.
“But I can do that between bulletins. I love mentoring, you know that.”
“Think of it like this. You’re a footy player. Eventually, you lose your fitness to play. So you move into coaching.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a journalist not an athlete. Haven’t done a hammy yet. Although, having children could be considered a groin injury. Thanks for the chat,” I walk away.
“My proudest moment from all the years in commercial television are producing and presenting documentaries on the plight of women and girls in the developing world.” Photo: World Vision Australia
This is the year Australia celebrates 50 years of television. Older women – some of them mothers, like Jennifer Byrne and Maeve O’Meara – are hosting their own shows solo on the ABC and SBS. But dinosaurs thrive in commercial television: tiny-brained titanosaurs slightly smarter than fern fronds.
I don’t know how to speak dinosaur, but I know someone who does. John Fordham is a celebrity manager who grazes in the Jurassic jungle. I ask him to negotiate my contract, which ends in December. “Probably not the right time to push for a pay rise,” I say. “As a 39-year-old mother of two, I’ll be lucky to keep my job.”
“Fair assessment, Trace,” he replies.
“It’s a tough business, especially for women. Let’s see how we go.”
I’m a damsel in distress, enlisting a knight in shining armour. But what choice do I have? If I go in, the boss hears: “Blah blah, fat mum moving her mouth. She’ll be gone soon. Then I can hire another pert young thing to bring me the Fin in the morning. Love it when Kath does that. And a cup of coffee, the way I like it. F… me, is she still talking? Bet she’s like that at home. Nag, nag, nag. Get back in the kitchen, woman!”
In early November, bushfires raze the south-east. Firefighters are on the front line, but camera crews are close behind. I’m concerned about my husband Jase, and those losing their homes.
I check a stream of emails from residents, desperate for information on wind direction. In the subject line of an email halfway down the page is the word “contract”. It’s from John Fordham. Anxiously, I address viewers’ emails before opening it.
The words swim on the screen. I can’t comprehend their meaning.
The head of news, who sits across the room, has sent an email to an agent several suburbs away saying my services are no longer required. More than a dozen years at the network, yet – apparently – I don’t deserve being told to my face. What a bloody coward.
I feel the force of the Furies. My anger at the “ingrateful man” is Shakespearean. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
But now is not the time for vengeance.
It’s best served cold: “Sweet to the soul, honey to the taste.” I phone Fordo: “Should I go and talk to him? Seems strange to not say anything.”
“Yep, keep it civil,” he says. “But it won’t change the outcome. Th e order’s clearly come from above. Don’t shoot the messenger.”
I stand outside the boss’s office.
“Come on in. I guess you’ve read the email,” he says, averting his eyes.
“Yes, but I don’t understand why. There’ve been no warnings. The ratings are the same. Actually, they’re a bit higher since I came back, which is nice.”
“Well, next year we’re designing a fresh look for the news.”
“Okay, so some of the other presenters are being booted, too?”
“No, not at this stage. We’re satisfied with our on-air line-up, overall.”
“Except for me. Is it anything to do with the fact I’ve had children?”
“Ah, if I were you, I wouldn’t worry too much. You’ll score some casual radio work that’ll fit in around Taj and Grace. You’d do well on radio.”
I can’t believe my ears. It’s the old TV trope. “Jeez, she’s got a face like a smashed crab. A dropped pie. A Good head for radio.” It’s about as bad as “come here and speak into this flesh-coloured microphone”. I swallow the soliloquy from King Lear. “Well, I’ve always liked working in radio. Thanks for the guidance. I’ve got an update to read.” After the update, I go upstairs for a meeting with the big boss.
“I’m sorry, the decision’s been made,’ he says. “As a favour, I’ll make this as dignified as possible for you. We’ll draft a press release saying you’re choosing to leave for family reasons. Spend more time with the kids and what-not. You can throw in a couple of quotes, then leave here with your head held high.”
Why am I the one considered undignified? I’m not the one kicking a new mother to the kerb.
Stalking downstairs, I vow to fight. Not just for myself: for all women. If you, or anyone you love, has been harassed, marginalised, or discriminated against, this one’s for you.
I mean, you try to be a good girl. Do all the right things. “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, sir.” And this is your reward.
Well, f… that. It’s time for this “good” girl to turn “bad”.
It’ll be a two-pronged attack – legal and media – inspired by Stalingrad. I need to build an army to defeat a mighty power: a television network. I need those documents detailing state and federal legislation. And I need to go to the toilet. The pelvic floor ain’t what it used to be. (Nobody wins a battle with a leaky bladder.) I am Joan of Arc! (Wait,wasn’t she burned at the stake?) Boadicea! (Oops, tortured.) Xena, warrior princess! (Ah, fictitious …)
Actually, I’m a tired old mum with a baby on the boob and a toddler off his chops. And mastitis. Six times a day, Grace is over my shoulder, chin digging in at 12 o’clock, the location of the lump. Seething with envy, Taj tries to prise her off . My breast is so sore I want to cut it off, like an Amazonian. It would certainly assist in firing the arrows in my quiver.
“Stay in bed if you can,” the Australian Breastfeeding Association advises on its website. “Or at least put your feet up for most of the day.” No wonder we fall in battle. Our reproductive function is restrictive. I know what I should do. But I have no idea how to do it.
“They’ve dropped you like a hot rock. Bastards,” my mother-in-law, Marg, says over the phone.
“The problem is, I’m not hot enough. Once you’re past your use-by date, especially if you commit the crime of having kids, that’s the end of it.”
“It’s not only in TV, Trace. My boss at the Daily Telegraph, David Penberthy, have you met him? Anyway, his wife was discriminated against when she tried to come back to her job. Do you want to talk to Penbo? He’ll be able to help.”
“Sure, but I can’t say anything because of confidentiality.”
Penbo calls, incandescent. “Trace, I know you can’t give me the gories. But it’s f…ed that this happens to women in this day and age. I’m gonna run a campaign in the paper. Are you okay with that?”
“As long as I don’t breach any laws, or restrictions in my contract, I’d love you to. But I can’t say a word.”
Others aren’t so sure. “You can’t sue a television network and get away with it,” one friend warns.
Liza, my bestie from uni, lines up a lawyer. Quick-witted and compassionate, John Laxon is a paragon of caution. “Often, women who take action are branded as troublemakers. Then they can’t get back into the workforce.”
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn. If that’s the way the industry treats women, I don’t want to be part of it. Besides, this will make them think twice before they screw over someone else.”
“Good on you. Th e evidence is clear. Bombs away!”
As John constructs a case for the Federal Court, I’m papped in the park by a photographer from the newspaper.
The next day, there’s a picture on the front page – Grace in the baby carrier as I push Taj on a swing – under the headline, “Spicer Sacked By Email”.
Messages from around the country fill my inbox. The subject line might as well read “The Same Thing Happened To Me”. They’re from women working as bartenders, shop assistants, teachers, journalists, lawyers and stockbrokers, and men – fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins and sons – enraged by how their loved ones are being treated.
Some employers are explicit. “Sorry, we’ve given your job to Mike because we didn’t think you’d come back from maternity leave.” Others are implicit. “I figured you’d want a less demanding job, because of the bun in the oven.”
And all are eminently actionable. It’s a tsunami of injustice. These anecdotes bear out the statistics.
Half all Australian women experience pregnancy discrimination, and one in five report losing their jobs during either pregnancy or on returning to work. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission says the real figure is higher, because many women fear reprisals for reporting.
Can’t believe you’re in here today,” a colleague says. “I saw the yarn in the paper. You’re going to court?”
“Yeah, but I can’t discuss the details, I’m sorry to say. Confidentiality and all that. Gotta do my job until the end of December when the contract runs out.”
“Good on you for holding those mongrels to account,” says another.
“Been going on for donkey’s years.”
“It’s not only mothers, or older women,” a producer adds. “It’s gay guys, like me. We only get so far in these blokey environments before we hit the pink ceiling.”
Their support gives me strength. But it doesn’t come from every quarter. All I will say is this: women who don’t support other women are like the Vichy with vaginas. (This is the French regime which collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.)
I tell a colleague about those who are bunkering down to avoid the crossfire.
“They’re just young and scared,” she says. “I’ll be your coffee buddy.”
In front of the building, we bump into a reporter from Nine. “Hi, Trace, we’re from A Current Affair,” he says, camera whirring. “Is it true you’re taking the network to court for discrimination?”
“Thanks for your interest,” I say. “But I’m bound by a confidentiality agreement as part of my contract.”
“Can you confirm or deny you’re taking legal action?
“I’ll give you the number of my lawyer. He can issue a statement.”
We hide in the cafe, but the cameraman films through the fence.
“I love it, Trace,” my colleague says. “The bosses will have a fit when they see this.”
“Are you okay to be seen with me?” I ask. “I don’t want to affect your career as well. Your baby’s due in, what, a couple of weeks?”
“Proud to be here,” she says, waving to the camera. “Professional women need to champion each other.”
I imagine her leading the charge in an alternative French Resistance: “Liberté! Egalité! Sororité!” Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright says, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Equally, there’s a special place in our hearts for those who do. Like long-time newsreader Juanita Phillips, who emails me a list of names and phone numbers for execs at the ABC. And newspaper legend Rebecca Wilson, who hands me her entire contact book.
The sisterhood isn’t a group of women looking at each other’s labias. Nor is it a coven of witches, stirring a potful of penises. And it’s not a day at the spa, for facials and massages (as heavenly as that may be). It is women with courage who come together to fi ght for our rights.
So, how do we know when to bear arms? When something is unfair. Are men demoted at work after reproducing? No. Men’s wages rise, on average, eight per cent when they become fathers, but there’s a wage penalty for motherhood of four per cent per child, according to US academic Michelle J. Budig’s research.
Not long after I’m sacked, Jase gets a pay rise. “I don’t give a stuff about their blood money,” he says. “You go – hard.”
Tracey and family in 2016 (from left): husband Jase, daughter Grace and son Taj. Photo: Courtesy of Tracey Spicer
During December, I respond to each email with empathy and advice, based on the Sex Discrimination Act and relevant guidelines from what’s now the Human Rights Commission: “An employee is entitled to return to the position she held prior to commencing leave or to a comparable available position if her original job has ceased to exist.”
I offer to work with the union to educate women, and prepare a comprehensive media campaign.
But it comes at a cost. I can’t stop crying. Creeks line my cheeks. It’s so unfair that women are treated like this – lumps of shit on the soles of bosses’ shoes. I feel their pain, as if it’s my own. What a litany of injustice we still suffer.
I don’t want to leave Ten. It’s an anchor: my second family. I’d rather work within the system to create change.
In a letter to her family – released posthumously – my nan Olive urges us to “Stand up and do what is right.” She was a woman ahead of her time, a sharp mind in a domestic shell. She could have been a doctor. Instead, she lived in quiet desperation.
Crippled by mastitis for a fifth time, I collapse on the floor. The breast milk is drying up. And Grace is dangerously underweight for a five-month-old.
After a discussion with my lawyer, I agree to Ten’s offer of an out-of-court settlement. This decision is made with deep reluctance. I want to take the action to court, but I can’t compromise my family’s health.
These are the details of the settlement … Sorry. It’s confidential. But here’s a summary in haiku: the envelope pushed her lips painfully stitched shut a tongue tip pokes through.
My final bulletin is on New Year’s Eve. I breathe deeply to stop myself from bursting into tears. The producers pick up prawns from the fish market; a director gives me a bunch of flowers; the make-up artists pitch in for a gift. There are hugs all round, but I feel hollow.
Then the phone rings. It’s my manager. “Trace, how would you feel about filling in on Sky News?”
“What? You’re kidding. I thought I was TV poison.”
“The boss, Angelos, reckons you’ve got guts. It’d be on a freelance basis, but it’s a foot in the door.”
“Wow. Thank you.”
“Happy New Year, Trace.”
This is an edited extract from The Good Girl Stripped Bare (ABC Books).
Back on the job at Sky News after thinking she’d never work again. Photo: Adam Ward