How the ‘pussy mafia’ helped me survive TV news as a woman in the ’80s

We were known as “the pussy mafia”. And none of us had a cat. Five women, one mission: to carve a career from the Jurassic jungle that was Channel Nine in the 1980s.

It was a standout era for women in commercial television: you were either told to “Stick your tits out more” or “Lose two inches off your arse.” (Depending on which day it was. Tuesday was usually all about buttocks, as I recall …)

So, like animals threatened by predators, we formed a protective pack. Similar systems thrived in every place I worked for almost 30 years. We had each other’s backs … until I was stabbed in the back.

As brutal as this sounds, it only happened once, when I was working for Channel Ten. But boy – I mean, girl – it was more than a mere flesh wound.

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She was a young journalist, navigating the maze of newsroom politics. As the older woman, I took on an unofficial mentoring role. That terrible trope about women tearing each other down had never made sense to me. We should support each other to make gender equality the new normal. As former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, “It will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that.”

And it was easy … until I became pregnant. Without warning, the woman I’d supported shed her skin. I tearfully told her of my life-threatening complication, which would have me bed-bound for three months. “Well, you won’t be able to come back to work after that,” she said. “You’ll have a sick little baby to look after.”

What I considered compassion was later revealed as venality. I discovered only recently that, as I lay on my back reading War and Peace, she was using The Art of War to lobby for my position.

After threatening the Ten Network with legal action, I returned from maternity leave, determined to fight for flexibility. The timing was right: a wave of feminism was sweeping workplaces and advertisers wanted “real women” on the screen.

Still, to say the pace of change at TV networks is sloth-like is insulting to the two-toed creatures. Weeks after coming back after the birth of my second child, my contract was terminated: I took the matter to the Federal Court.

I sought out my protege, hoping to clear the air over a cup of coffee.

“Yep, love to have a coffee,” she said, avoiding eye contact. “You go out first and I’ll follow a couple of minutes later.”

“Er, okay,” I replied, perplexed.

Later, over lattes, she explained: “Look, I don’t think it’s good for my reputation to be seen with you right now.”

I was too upset to speak.

Surely, this was what the sisterhood was about: working, side by side, to dismantle structural discrimination, brick by brick.

The following day, another colleague said loudly, “Hey, Trace. There’s a cameraman from A Current Affair out the front. Probably wants to get a shot of you. Let’s go out and grab a coffee together.”

This was one wise gal.

Female friendship is powerful protection against the “gender asbestos”, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick calls it, built into the walls of workplaces.

But we must remain vigilant. It’s easy to fall into the trap of targeting other women, especially in industries where there’s fierce competition for a handful of positions.

Despite being betrayed, I won’t let one bad experience mar my view of mentoring. In fact, it has galvanised my commitment.

I now have two proteges who make my heart swell: smart, strong, sassy women who are fighting the good fight.

Perhaps the term “pussy mafia” is best left in the ’80s, but our version of omerta (not punishable by death, fortunately) still stands: let’s create more girls’ clubs, to rival the boys’ clubs.

Tracey Spicer is the convenor of the networking and mentoring initiative, Women in Media.