Danielle Robay, 26
TV Host + Entertainment Journalist
Danielle Robay, the youngest on-air host in Chicago, navigated the competitive entertainment industry as a young woman in her early twenties under a constant stream of scrutiny. Rising through the ranks, she was soon to realize that she had to work harder than her male counterparts, and would routinely be met with judgement regarding her appearance. “As a TV host you have to walk into meetings dressed up,” she says. “Makeup, hair, heels, the whole thing. I can see the look in their eyes, it’s a ‘here comes another one’ kind of look. And you feel like you have to overcompensate just to start on equal footing.
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
I chose to become a journalist because I love talking to people and more so, I love asking questions. I’m passionately curious about who you are, what you’re in love with, what you’ve overcome, and what makes you tick. Also, I’m really driven by amazing women. I was raised by one, named after two (Robay is created from my two grandmother’s names Rodi + Barbara) and constantly inspired by the women I meet. I am determined to help tell their stories
My greatest professional achievement is my current role as co-host of WCIU’s The Jam. I’m the youngest TV Host in Chicago- my hometown- and I truly look forward to waking up in the morning to go to work. And with a 2:30AM wake up call, you must really love your job! And I do; my co-hosts make me laugh every day, I’m constantly learning about the world and different people (one day I get to interview David Yarrow one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers about traveling to some of the world’s most dangerous places, and the next I’m interviewing Sarah O’Hagan the CEO of Flywheel on her career or Mo’nique about feminism).
Aside from pure professional achievement, I’m most proud of the community of amazing girls and women that has developed on my Instagram. I get tons of messages every day from women of all ages sharing advice, asking for advice, recommending great books, asking for book recs. It’s incredible!
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
It’s been tough being a young woman and being taken seriously. As a TV Host you have to walk into meetings dressed up, makeup, hair heels, the whole thing. I can see the look in their eyes, it’s a “here comes another one” kind of look.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
As a woman I have to do the same job as a man and more just to be taken seriously. At first it angered me, there are moments when it still does, but I’ve really learned to accept it (for now) and know that the extra hard work will make me even better at my craft, more resilient, more creative, and hopefully more impactful when the time comes to tackle the next adventure!
I didn’t always feel that way…some of the judgments used to upset me, and I think I used to overcompensate for them- especially the young/”cute” girl stereotype instead of being seen as professional or as a skilled broadcaster. But when I started this morning show I made a conscious decision to stop caring about what other people think or to try to prove a thing. It sounds so obvious but much harder in practice; it set me free. As women, we get to be ‘and’s’ not ‘or’s’. We can be pretty and smart. Just like men get to be handsome and accomplished.
Also, I learned early on in my career that when meeting someone for the first time I don’t take a meeting outside of someone’s office or past 6pm. If they are serious about what we are meeting about, they will invite me to their office during the day.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
I truly tuned them out- the words went in one ear and out the other. Every time someone said “there are so many people who want those few jobs” I thought “Yep- and I’m going to be one of the few who get them”. When you know your purpose, in your gut, nothing can sway your narrative.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
Whatever you think your limitations are, they all have a corresponding strength. And, they are what make you unique. For instance:
Naive -> Positive
Disorganized -> Creative
Shy -> Reflective
Don’t hide from your weaknesses. Embrace them, talk about them (super important to talk about them and not shame them), leverage them. Your weakness may just be your competitive edge. There has never been a better time to be an ambitious woman. We got this.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.