Georgie Dent’s opinions are in high demand. As Contributing Editor at Women’s Agenda – and former associate editor of online women’s network, Mamamia – she’s shared her views on Lateline, The Morning Show, The Today Show, Sky News and The Drum. She’s a journalist, a mother, a wife, a lawyer in a previous life and someone who recognises the importance of being her own ally. In this interview, Georgie openly discusses everything from parenting to politics, why all women should be feminists and the nervous breakdown which rocked her at the ripe age of 25.
Before moving to journalism you started your career at a commercial law firm, can you tell us about this time and why you changed paths?
I studied law and business at uni and opted for the relative comfort and security of taking a graduate position with a law firm when I finished. I had done clerkships with a few firms in my last few years of study and figured steady employment with a big firm was a smart option. My inkling was that commercial law probably wasn’t going to be for me (certainly not forever) but I had really enjoyed studying law and felt it was worth trying.
My inkling was right. There was a lot that was fantastic about being employed by a big firm but for me there was a considerable downside. I got really sick. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 19, in my second year of uni. It’s an autoimmune disease that is pretty awful and it flared up badly in the 18 months I spent working as a junior lawyer. It culminated in a nervous breakdown of sorts: I spent 4 months effectively bed-ridden with crippling anxiety and debilitating dizziness.
I can’t overstate how awful that time was. I was terrified I would never feel well again: I genuinely believed I would spend the rest of my adult life living with my parents. (To be clear I absolutely adore my mum and dad but I hadn’t quite envisaged spending my life on their couch.)
There was no magical cure for me: I had to look after myself. Physically and mentally. It took time, therapy and medication but I was able to rebuild my health and the reward at the end was freedom. I can’t overstate how delicious each day of being well enough to live life felt.
I spent a few months working at David Jones selling clothes before I started to think about my career. I was tossing up whether to apply for legal jobs or try to get into journalism.
A friend called because he’d seen a job advertised at BRW magazine for research assistants. They employed researchers for 3 months to help compile the Rich List and were looking for recent business graduates or students. I applied and got one of the jobs. I thought it would be brilliant to work alongside journalists to see if it was worth pursuing.
From the minute I arrived I loved it. I met the editor in chief on my first day and explained that I was a lawyer who was keen to develop a career in journalism. He asked me to write a few things and a few weeks later he hired me as a junior reporter, covering the legal round. I have been hooked on journalism since then.
That’s a long answer!
I spent a couple of years at BRW – with a break overseas in between. Like many many mums before me, I started a blog after having my first child in 2010 which I kept up for three years. It gave me a great taste for digital media and was terrific fun. When I was on maternity leave with our second daughter, I was offered the chance to edit Women’s Agenda which felt like a perfect merge between BRW and my blog. I was there for two years before moving to Mamamia.
Your opinions are often in high demand – what subject are you most passionate about?
I was going to say women but the reality is probably inequality.
When it comes to women, it defies reason, and my sense of justice, that in 2016 gender equality remains an ideal rather than the reality. It doesn’t make sense to me that women are still paid less than men and still hold a tiny proportion of leadership and decision making positions in business, politics and academia despite comprising half the population.
It doesn’t make sense to me that women undertake the majority of unpaid caring work at the expense of their own financial security.
It doesn’t make sense to me that family violence is a bigger health risk for Australian women than smoking, drinking, obesity.
Inequality manifests itself in lots of different ways and certainly the way women have to endure that is a subject I focus on. But I am just as riled by the inequality that other groups of people face: it is an absolute travesty that the LGBTI community are potentially being subject to a plebiscite merely to attain the same rights as other Australians. When you look at the damage that is already being inflicted it’s a disgrace.
What does feminism mean to you?
To me, feminism means women and men having the same opportunities. In theory it’s difficult to find anyone who would openly disagree with that statement but in reality it’s far more complicated.
The notion of men and women being equal isn’t threatening: but to a lot of people the things that might make that possible aren’t warmly received. For example suggesting that men do more at home, or take timeout of work to look after their children, (which could make it easier for women to work) is threatening. It’s the same with women who might not want to have children, or women who have children but want to keep working – those things challenge the norm. And that is met with resistance.
Feminism is disruptive to the status quo: it requires a shift of power, and power is something rarely given up. Which is why it’s considered a dirty word by many.
I do particularly like Dale Spender’s famous quote:
“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions.. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?'”
How important do you think it is for the general population to weigh in on politics?
People tend to weigh into politics when it affects them. For me the personal is political and because it feels that way it’s less of a conscious choice to weigh in, and more a situation of there being no alternative. It’s the way I’m wired.
I almost envy people who aren’t wired that way: there are days when caring and feeling invested is taxing.
I think we are living in particularly turbulent times. Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election are proof that there are a lot of people feeling disenfranchised and dissatisfied with the status quo. There is an appetite for change and we can’t deny that.
If you were to recommend one television program to a friend that you find particularly insightful, what would it be?
Australian Story and Four Corners are probably the two shows I’d recommend. The subject matter always varies but week after week they tell important and compelling stories, in a way that I’d say is un-paralleled. On a daily basis I really enjoy The Project and 7.30.
You’ve done television appearances before and felt the vicious wrath of social media – how did you handle this?
Initially, not that well. The first time it happened I was unprepared. I went on a tv show and when I came off set and picked up my phone it had died. It had almost full battery when I went on, but 45 minutes later, thanks to a barrage of abuse via social media, it had switched off. The day of the show I spent preparing, getting my head around the topics we’d be discussing, as I wanted to be fully informed. I didn’t expect everyone to agree with my views but I hadn’t contemplated how viciously people would disagree with me. The comments varied but lots were along the lines of “who is this dumb bitch?” “who does she think she is”.
Seeing those remarks in such high volume was quite confronting – happily that level of vitriol isn’t something I was accustomed to. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways because it reinforced to me the kind of sentiment that is out there . To lots of people, a woman voicing an opinion is unwelcome.
What helped me through was recognising that it wasn’t about me personally. And being able to retreat into my real world – with my husband, kids, family, work colleagues, friends – was very reassuring.
Since then I have grown more accustomed to it. There are days where it is easier to brush off but there are also days when I have burst into tears upon reading something particularly nasty. On those days I make an effort to immerse myself in the real world more than the online world.
What is the most rewarding part of being an editor of Women’s Agenda?
Everything. Having a job that is completely aligned with my greater sense of purpose and my skillset, working with a team of incredible women and having the flexibility to make it work with my family.
Do you have a career highlight?
Being made the acting editor of Women’s Agenda in August of 2013 was hugely significant in career terms.
Being flown to Singapore in 2014 as a finalist as a journalist of the year in the inaugural Women’s Empowerment Awards was a pretty “pinch-me” experience. And being invited on Lateline on budget night last year to talk about how the measures would affect women and Australian families was something that made me stop and reflect.
I also think the fact I have a job and work I love is a highlight. I guess because of my first career not working out so well, I am aware of how lucky I am to have work I love.
What’s the greatest lesson you have learnt to date and how has it impacted your life?
Part and parcel with recovering from my nervous breakdown at 25, was recognizing that I have to be my own ally. With a proclivity to perfectionism I was in the habit of mentally punishing myself all the time. I was always beating myself up about something: I very rarely stopped and recognised the good things. It was an invisible, subconscious habit that I needed to break. I thought about it like food – I’ve never been super stringent about food but I have always aimed to have more good stuff than bad. When I thought about the “food” I was feeding my mind, the ratio was way out of whack: I was inhaling a steady stream of junk, only very occasionally giving myself something healthy.
It took time and work – and it’s still a habit I fall back into – but switching the ratio of “mind food” was life changing for me.
To begin with, at the end of each day, as I put my head on the pillow I would have to think of three things I had done that day that made me feel proud or happy or satisfied. They could be little or big. The process of identifying those things – rather than dwelling on the 5 million things I could beat myself up for – helped create a new pattern.
How do you juggle this fully fledged career and raising your three daughters?
With varying degrees of success! There are a couple of factors that make it possible. Having supportive and flexible managers is the first one: and I don’t mean managers who simply talk the talk. Since having kids I have been extremely lucky to work for men and women who walk the walk and totally understand that outcomes matter more than the hours spent at a desk.
It means I have never had to waste too much time or energy worried about my family responsibilities.
I genuinely love the work I do which is probably why I have worked as hard as I have at different points. It hasn’t felt like work and I truly care about the issues I am invested in. (I should say though I have just had 7 months off after having our third daughter in March and I have absolutely loved every minute of the break.)
My husband is as committed to my career as I am and that makes a huge difference. He has got an all-consuming job too but we rally behind each other. He is a constant cheer-leader for me. Having that kind of support and encouragement on a daily basis is powerful.
And finally as of this year we have had an au pair live with us and it’s a game changer. I don’t know how we balanced it all before.
What do you enjoy most about being a mother?
At this stage in our family life, with a 6 year old, a 4 year old and a 7 month old, it’s the physical affection and the laughter I love the most. Watching how much our older girls adore their baby sister makes my heart explode every day.
Listening to the funny stuff kids say is the ultimate reward for surviving the drudgery that raising little kids entails. Looking after babies and toddler and little kids is physically and emotionally taxing and it’s relentless and I think that needs to be said. It’s not like one big Huggies ad. But the bit where you get to watch these little people begin to understand the world and talk to you is the gold dust that makes the other stuff melt away.
How do you relate to the word ‘adrift’?
It reminds me that there is no fixed “point” in life: no single destination. The very best days – and the very worst – are fleeting. Adrift reminds me of that. There is a lot we can do each day to help ourselves achieve what we want but there also needs to be acceptance that in life we cannot control everything. Finding a balance between striving for the things we want and being flexible and accepting of the things we can’t change or control is a work-in-progress that adrift makes me remember.