Robyn Doolittle has forged an extraordinary career as a Canadian journalist—first uncovering the Rob Ford story and then moving on to write “Unfounded,” about how Canadian police services dismiss sexual assault claims. Today, the 36-year-old author of two non-fiction books is uncovering the gender pay gap in a series of front-cover Globe and Mail stories that—while only amplified during the world-changing times of COVID—are bringing strength to power from Bay Street to government and beyond. Doolittle, a runner, took time out to chat with Ben Kaplan about her work, her resiliency, and how she always, always (well, most of the time) creates space to run.
BK: Robyn, thanks for your time. How did your Power Gap series begin and what does it take to tackle something as pervasive as the pay gap between genders?
RD: We started this investigation with a very basic premise: could we determine if men and women in the same job are being paid significantly different salaries? I think we’ve all heard the statistic that women earn 87 cents for every dollar that a man makes, but that number is the average hourly rate of all women compared with all men in the workforce.
BK: So what does that mean?
RD: I think what most women want to know is: is the guy one desk over, doing the same work, with the same experience, being paid more? The problem with trying to investigate this is that salaries are secret. But after some brainstorming, we realized that one large chunk of the workforce does have public salaries and that’s six-figure earners in the public sector. We collected salary records for nearly 90,000 employees and what the numbers showed is that while there was still a gender wage gap issue — especially at the top — the bigger issue was just the lack of women; the lack of women at the top, on the way to the top, in the middle, on executive teams and in management jobs in general. This is where we landed on focusing on “power” rather than just salaries.
BK: Your most recent piece in the Globe featured inside documents from the law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP that showed female equity partners earned 25% less than their male peers. What did that document mean for your series?
RD: So, law firms in the US and UK have been sharing wage gap data for years, but Canadian law firms have never agreed to do the same. At the partner level, we know that the gap in the United States is about 10-25 per cent. That Cassels piece was the first glimpse of what the gap might be here. And by the way, that 25% means that, on average, male partners brought home $200,000 more per year. Think of the impact of that over a woman’s career. I know that since that piece, major law firms in Canada have taken a look at their numbers. And since then, half a dozen large firms have come out to say that they are now open to sharing gender wage gap data.
BK: It’s so awesome how your reporting brings about change. Can you talk about your methods? For instance, how did that document wind up in your hands?
RD: I definitely can’t talk about the Cassels documents, but speaking in general about journalism: reporting is mostly about talking to people. It begins with a topic you want to look into and then you just start calling people who are involved in that area. From them, you learn the history and the current issues or problems, who the main players are, what documents might exist and where those records might be, and then you finish those conversations with a list of five more people to interview. From there, the process starts again. It’s just an ever-expanding web. I do a lot of data work and access to information requests—a process by which you can obtain otherwise confidential public records—but that always comes after talking to people and learning what I should go after.
BK: Your work has been famously diligent since the Rob Ford days when you were at the Star and became one of two reporters ever to view the infamous Rob Ford “crack tape.” Can you briefly take us back to those days?
RD: I guess I should say there were actually three reporters—John Cook from Gawker also saw the video—but yeah, I mean, it was just a really bizarre time. I was a beat reporter then covering municipal politics and you have this person elected who is so unlike anyone who has come before him.
BK: It’s hard to remember clearly the Rob Ford days but he was the first of his kind.
RD: As many have pointed out before, the Ford era in Toronto was a precursor to so much of what we saw in the United States with Trump — the populism, the lying, the discrediting of media. The lesson I’ve really carried forward from that experience is that journalists need to proactively talk to the public about how they do their jobs. It’s not enough to just drop a story and move on, people need to know the process, the hurdles, the ethical dilemmas, all the work that goes into a story, and what goes on in a newsroom. With some leaders actively sowing distrust in the media, it’s so important that journalists try to be as open and transparent as possible.
BK: As a female reporter in some pretty tough places, do you have to take additional concerns?
RD: For sure. I mean, to bring this around to running, I think it’s very similar. I wouldn’t run at certain times of the day or in certain areas—say, along the water at night—and, if it is a bit later in the day, I wouldn’t head out without telling someone where I’m going and when to expect me back. As a woman, you’re always taking these things into consideration and I certainly do that in my work as well.
BK: What fuels your work? Is it anger, moral outrage, a sense of bringing things that happen in the darkness out into the light?
RD: I hate getting asked this question because my answer is so utterly cheesy: I like uncovering hidden truths. I especially enjoy looking into powerful institutions, systems and people and giving a voice to people who might not otherwise have one. (I also just think journalists are nosy people.)
BK: At this point, since we’re getting into your toughness, can you talk about your running, and what you do for your own mental health?
RD: First, I really hate running. I am not particularly good at it. I feel like it never really gets much easier for me. BUT I also feel like garbage if I don’t run. I started because my husband is a very serious runner and when I began tagging along on his shorter runs, there was no denying—for me at least— that running was the most efficient way to exercise and clear my head. I love seeing different neighbourhoods. I love that time for myself, just listening to podcasts or whatever. I have two little girls and they are my world, but getting away for 45 minutes is wonderful. I will say, if you’re struggling to run, things got easier for me when I started using an app to track my distance and splits. Having a benchmark made it easier to push through those first sticky kilometres. To get better in anything you need the ability to measure progress — and as I’m saying this I’m just now realizing that this is exactly what we’re talking about with wage transparency in the Power Gap series. Benchmarks help you improve.
BK: You mentioned once that it helps you recharge. That’s always such a fascinating phenomenon to me, how expending energy actually returns us with energy. How does that work for you?
RD: I know, it’s so strange. Sometimes I just feel so exhausted and I’m like: there is no way I am going to be able to run today. My body and mind are just spent. But then you force yourself and as soon as you’re going, in that fresh air, totally alone, you immediately feel better. It happens every time. And again, for me, I don’t do crazy long runs. I’m a 5-8km kind of person, and it’s usually 5km. For me, that’s the perfect time to decompress, zone out, and just have time to myself.
BK: Could you now take us up-to-date with the “Power Gap” series? Let’s say our readers hear about your work and feel empowered. What should they do if they want to work with you, if they know something that’s not right?
RD: Please (!!!) get in touch if you have a story to tell. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t email from your work account. Don’t text from a work phone. I’m on Twitter @robyndoolittle and you can set up a burner account and DM me.
BK: Thanks for your time, Robyn. From the lot of us at Sportstats, the readers, advertisers and staff, thank you, sincerely, for your work.
RD: Thank you so much for having me!