How high-profile women can avoid falling victim to the ‘sitting duck’ syndrome in interviews

The advertisement of horse racing on a world heritage building has dominated the media and political discussion recently. For those of you who may have been on a Mars expedition over the past couple of weeks and missed the furore, we’re referring to the Sydney Opera house and the advertising request of the NSW based prestigious Everton horse race.

This debate has raised significant questions about how we treat our valued architectural icons, political decision-making and influence of the media and other corporations. At the centre of this controversy was CEO of the Opera House, Louise Herron, who was mowed down on live radio by shock-jock Alan Jones, for simply doing her job. That is, negotiating the terms of such an arrangement as per policy and legislative requirements.

There has been strong condemnation of the way Alan conducted the interview and his questioning of Herron. Specifically, the way he routinely interrupted her, cut her off and asked her ‘who do you think you are?’ as if she was not qualified in her position of CEO to make the decision at hand.

He also threatened to have her terminated from her position and put Peter V’landy, Chief Executive and Board Member of Racing NSW on the line to nut out a negotiation live on air. While it’s unclear whether Louise knew she would be put on the spot in such circumstances, the interview came across as an ‘ambush.’

What is the ‘sitting duck’ syndrome?

‘Sitting duck’ syndrome in this context refers to moments where women are subjected to inappropriate or lewd lines of questioning, statements or general conduct in an interview in circumstances whereby they are unable to escape. For example, live on radio, television, on stage in front of an audience. Topics vary and could be anything from a woman unreasonably having their capability questioned, to comments or questions about their attire, appearance, sexual appeal, parenting skills or reproductive system. It usually occurs in situations where there is a power imbalance.

It goes without saying that no one deserves to be subjected to such conduct as a guest on any platform. Louise is not the first high profile woman to experience it and unfortunately in the current climate, she won’t be the last.

Other recent examples include:

  • Jacinda Arden being described as ‘attractive’ by Charles Wooley on 60 minutes and questioned regarding her daughter Neve’s date of conception

  • Carly Findlay being on the receiving end of inappropriate comments regarding her appearance from Jon Faine

  • Mo Hope receiving backlash after walking out on a panel discussion where Mick Malthouse made sexist comments about female footballers

Social conditioning usually means that women are quite often expected to ‘endure’ inappropriate behaviour without ‘making a scene’ and accommodating others to the best of our ability. The good news is there are ways that women can empower themselves to avoid, prepare for and manage the ‘sitting duck’ syndrome in a way that maintains their credibility and authority.

1.    Set expectations regarding your personal standards and the kind of questions you are comfortable answering

It’s highly advisable to negotiate the context of the interview or discussion, the types of topics or questions you are happy to discuss or answer and those that are off-limits. If possible, ask to receive a list of proposed questions up front in writing. The very nature of conversations means they can sometimes take on a life of their own in the moment, however having an idea of what will likely be discussed is a great way for you to manage expectations.

2.   Predict the likely objections you may receive

Any high-quality leader who is building an impactful movement is likely to push some buttons, challenge thinking and generate conversation. This means there will be people who challenge or object to your work for various reasons; whether legitimate rebuttals or not. That will sometimes be the very person interviewing you.

Objections can often provide excellent opportunities to not only deepen the knowledge of your work, but to also educate others.

Understanding the nature of your work intimately and how it fits in the context of how other people experience the world, and their objectives and agendas, requires you to learn and predict the types of likely objections you may receive and prepare well considered responses to them.

3.   Understand that you always have the power to choose

Sometimes it’s simply not possible to gain a list of questions upfront, or predict what people ask or say to you live in the moment. Depending on your role, live unscripted, in the moment questions or interviews may be part and parcel of your work. In which case it’s important to understand that you always have the power to choose.

Just because they ask you a question, does not mean you have to answer it.

Just because someone attempts to derail a conversation, doesn’t mean you have to follow them down the garden path.

Just because you’ve agreed to an interview, doesn’t mean you don’t have the power to politely re-set boundaries or end it at any time.

Shevonne Joyce teaches women the secrets of how to be the true go-to brand in their industry and create businesses and brands that are as successful on the inside as they appear on the outside. For a confidential conversation, please get in touch.

Shevonne Joyce