Lisa Ling knows her audience. Before she helped kick off Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day in a conversation at Gap Inc. headquarters on March 4, she wanted to make sure those in attendance knew one thing: in all the video clips shown to introduce her, “I’m wearing Gap in every clip! I’ve worn Gap exclusively on my shows for the last 11 years!”
Currently the host of This Is Life with Lisa Ling on CNN, Ling began her broadcast career at the age of 16 as a reporter for Channel One News, a daily news program shown in middle and high schools. In the nearly 30 years since, she’s traveled the globe to seek out compelling stories.
At Gap Inc. HQ, she talked about some of those trips, plus unconscious bias, parenthood, pay equity and much more. This Q&A is condensed and edited from that conversation.
You’re here today at a company that has always seen fashion as a way of doing good in the world. In your travels, have you experienced that idea in action?
Well, we know that there’s power in fashion, right? It can be used to make pretty profound statements. When I was in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the ‘90s and was separated from my male crew at the tomb of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a group of women grabbed me and pushed me up against the wall to wipe off the little bit of clear lip gloss I was wearing. They didn’t want me to be seen with it on. It was a really unnerving experience.
After we left and were driving through a local park, I started to notice some young women who were wearing blue jeans under their coats and with the front part of their hair dyed blond. We stopped the car and were surrounded by young people who were excited to engage us Americans about what life was like in our country, and about their hope that Iran would be able to experience democracy someday.
Interacting with those young women gave me so much hope: They were using what they were wearing and how they dyed their hair to subtly rebel against a controlling, potentially dangerous government. Fashion can have incredible impact and allow people to express themselves in ways that aren’t obvious, but are very powerful.
You visit so many different cultures as a reporter. As you make your way into unfamiliar places, are there ways that you deal with the preconceived ideas you might hold?
We all have unconscious biases about what other people are like, what other cultures are going to be like, what food in other parts of the world is going to taste like. I have biases, even as I’ve made a career of being open-minded and trying to encourage people to get to know each other better through the stories I tell.
You don’t have to leave the country to interact with people who are different from you, and I hope that the work I do helps people be more open to how others live, even right in their own backyard. There’s real value to that right now, when we seem to be more entrenched than ever in a climate of ugly partisan rancor where we’re all easily triggered. In reality, we all want the same things; we just have different means for how to get them. We all want to be safe, be able to provide for our families, have stability in our careers, have health care. We just go about those things in different ways sometimes.
As a mom of two young girls, how is being a parent part of the way you express yourself?
I feel more defiant than ever about going out and getting stories, especially in this climate of closed-mindedness! Yes, I am a parent, and my time with my kids is so important to me. But I also want to do my part to make the world my kids inherit more tolerant and more accepting. I’m hoping to expand the conversation so that my kids, your kids, everyone’s kids have the opportunity to get to know each other without fear. I’ve always believed that by getting to know your fellow humans, not only do you become a smarter, more well-rounded person, you also become a better
person. We could use a bit more of that these days.
Gap Inc. is really proud of being committed to equal pay for equal work. What’s your take on pay equity in the broadcast industry?
A couple of years ago, I was on a network show that was consistently rated comparable to or better than my male colleagues’ shows. I got a call from a network executive saying, “We’re going to announce that you’ll be renewed for one year, and your four male colleagues will be renewed for two.” I was apoplectic. And I replied, “if anyone asks me about the disparity I’ll respond, ‘maybe it’s because I’m not white and male enough.’” And then I got another season. That was just one example of something that’s a larger issue across industries and spheres of life.
I hated that I had to play the gender card. But I had to do it for myself, because I deserved it. And if I didn’t speak up, I’d be doing a disservice to all women. It was terrifying, but it felt really good. The lesson there for me was that I was allowed to speak up for myself. In fact, not only am I allowed, but it’s so imperative that I do speak up. I think that’s something all women can internalize and actualize more. If you know you work hard, and your work stands on its own, don't be afraid of standing up for what you deserve.