I was one of six kids, with four rough and tumble brothers and a big sister who could hold her own with the best of them. Pigs-tails tied to the back of bus seats, playing commandoes with real rocks, catching cane toads, that kind of tomboy caper. I thought I was pretty tough and Jana, the perfumed steamroller had already paved the way for young women journos like me to play with the big boys in the testosterone-driven world of television current affairs.
I had slept in bombed-out hotels in siege-torn Sarajevo, interviewed senior members of the Taliban, I’d been frogmarched at gun point out of the parliamentary compound during the 2000 coup in Fiji. In fact the coup leader George Speight sent a messenger around to my hotel to tell me I’d better watch out after I asked the wrong questions. That night I went to bed with the iron under the cover just in case I had to clock a midnight visitor. I’d received death threats from a people-smuggler in Jakarta, hand delivered under my hotel door.
But none of this equipped me with the skills to negotiate the minefield that was my one-time tyrannical boss. This A-grade bully, among other things, literally made a crucifix sign with his fingers behind my back when I walked into the main office, in front of all the other staff.
He once called me a pig in swill. He told me and anyone who would listen that the reason he did not like me was because I reminded him of one of his former wives, and there were several of them. Standing up to him would invite more abuse. The misogyny of it all would put Alan Jones to shame.
It’s quite funny now when I think about it, because it was just so appalling, but I know I felt isolated and humiliated because I just didn’t know how to fight it.
A great bully manages upwards, and like sucker fish to a shark, the bully always has his or her wingmen ready to shoot you down if you dare complain.
I’d seen it all before. No-one went to HR if they valued their job. Those that did were given a payout, a gag order and a pock-marked reputation stamped never to return.
So I stuck it out, the simmering injustice eating into sleep, affecting health and happiness. I wasn’t alone of course, and that helped take it less personally. Around the same time a young Sarah Stinson, who at just 18 was in her first real job, had also entered the pressure-cooker world of nightly current affairs.
“I was 18, I thought the screaming and name calling and carry on was part of life,’ the now 33- year- old executive producer of Seven’s Morning Show recollects.
“It was a boiler room and there was a lot of sociopathic behaviour and I’ve been called a c..t more times in my life than I care for. It was like battered wife syndrome, you get used to feeling that way.”
After one particularly withering, expletive-packed attack however, she took her father’s advice and jumped ship. It was the best career move she ever made.
Sitting among the management how- too books on the shelf of Stinson’s Martin Place office, there’s one called “Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult Situations at Work”.
“I use it as a prop. When someone comes in with an impossible situation I say…One sec – then pretend to look up so they can see cover. They laugh and it breaks the ice,” she says.
Humour aside, Stinson clearly takes being a good boss very seriously and she is determined never to be accused of being a bully.
“I learnt that bullying comes in all shapes and sizes – the yelling and name calling was one but what affected me the most was the Machiavellian stuff, being lynched behind your back, you know, ‘she’s a mole, she’s hormonal’ that kind of stuff,” Stinson says, still mortified, but also thankful for the lessons.