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.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.