Celebs back air traffic woman in 'Mail' battle
Air controller takes legal advice in row over 'male chauvinist pig' story
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
A female air traffic controller who has gone to war with the Irish Mail on Sunday has received support from famous celebrities Jonathan Ross, Stephen Fry, and Graham Norton.
Melanie Schregardus, based at Shannon airport, has taken legal advice and has contacted the office of the Irish Press Ombudsman over the article in last Sunday's edition, headlined 'The male chauvinist pigs of Irish air traffic control'.
The article, with a sub-heading: 'Controller's web diary reveals the sexism and filthy language that are rife in the tower' was based on a grotesque interpretation of a blog she wrote about her experiences when she first became an air traffic controller 12 years ago, and the subsequent changes.
It led to last weekend's Mail story, days after the air traffic controllers walkout stranded thousands of air passengers.
The newspaper article stated that "a woman air traffic controller has lifted the lid on the REAL world inside the control tower -- a den of male chauvinists who turn the air blue with crude jokes and expect their female colleagues to take on the 'girlie tasks' of sending birthday cards and arranging the Christmas party".
The Mail story went on to say that Melanie was "forced to endure a torrent of of sexist abuse when she and a handful of colleagues first broke into a profession previously dominated by men".
Mrs Schregardus is precluded from talking to the media by a contractual confidentiality clause but her father, journalist Brian O'Brien, said that the article was a gross misrepresentation of what she had written.
In her blog, Mrs Schregardus wrote about her first experience as as a female air traffic controller 12 years ago.
She wrote: "Initially the older male controllers were bemused with our arrival. On our initial tour of the centre, there were comments like 'finally some eye candy' and 'do we need so many secretaries'. Then the penny dropped that credibility in here would have to be earned. The two years of training, passing exams and simulation exercises were tough, but we were well prepared for a life as a controller. What we weren't prepared for was being on a team -- teams that were predominantly male.
"On our first day, we were given a run-down of how things went 'on the floor'. No junior controllers to sit together in a sector (understandable), and no females to sit together. I distinctly remember being removed from a sector because I was sitting with a female controller. Thinking back, they were leaving themselves wide open, and it wouldn't be done today, but this is what we were faced with and as newbies, you just kept the head down and let your work speak for itself.
"Today things are better, although we're still noticeably in the minority. I've been the only girl on my team for a while now. There are pros and cons, I'm well looked after by the guys and they're quite protective of their 'girlie'. On the downside, as the girl, I'm the 'organiser' of the team. The Christmas party, team outings," the blog stated.
Mrs Schregardus was so incensed with the article that appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday, she wrote a response. Mrs Schregardus wrote that she believed the article made it sound like she thought her colleagues were sexist: "The people I work with today could, and probably have, read it and decided that I am not on their side, and that I think that they are sexist, nasty, bullies. None of this is true."
Her online response has had 24,000 views so far. The astonishing response has been aided by the Twitter phenomenon. Mrs Schregardus is a cousin of comedian Dara O Briain and soon her spat with the Mail made it as " tweets" on the Twitter sites of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton and Stephen Fry.
The Irish Mail on Sunday is unrepentant. The newspaper's editor Sebastian Hamiliton told Journalism.co.uk: "The Irish Mail on Sunday did not attribute to Mrs Schregardus the view that her colleagues were sexist. (Journalist) Luke Byrne quoted extensively from what she had said about her working environment. His account made clear that some of the sexist behaviour described by Mrs Schregardus (such as refusing to let women sit together) occurred during her early days as an air traffic controller and that conditions have improved since.
"While the article reported a number of sexist incidents, it does not say she is unhappy. For example, it quotes her as saying: 'I'm well looked after by the guys, they're quite protective of their 'girlie'.' Nevertheless, based on the contents of her blog, it is an empirical fact that her workplace is a sexist environment," the editor said.