What's Changed, and What Hasn't, Since the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 4 2012 10:47 AM

What's Changed, and What Hasn't, Since the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses

Newsweek cover.
Recent Newsweek cover.

Lynn Povich started her journalism career as a Newsweek secretary in 1965. Soon, she and dozens of the magazine’s female underlings were holding secret meetings in the ladies’ room, plotting their escape from administrative labor. The magazine’s well-educated, highly qualified women were not satisfied answering phones, stuffing envelopes, and checking facts for its male staff of writers and editors. So in 1970, Povich and 46 of her female colleagues—with the pro-bono help of attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton—exited the restroom and sued Newsweek for sex discrimination. In 1975, Povich became the magazine’s first-ever female senior editor. This year, she wrote a book all about it—The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Yes, a lot has changed since 1970. For one thing, female journalists are now publishing books chronicling the sexism of the news industry, and reviewing those books in the New York Times. (Women at the Times staged a similar revolt in the ’70s, an event that inspired its own book, and a Times review, too). In 2010, three young female Newsweek staffers revisited the 1970 insurrection, detailing how the magazine’s gender gap had improved in the past 40 years (women now make up 39 percent of the magazine’s editorial masthead, including the top slot), and where it had stalled (39 percent is not equity)—then published the story in Newsweek’s pages.

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But female journalists still have plenty to discuss in the bathroom (or more likely, in the speedily-minimized Gchat window). Women's representation in newsrooms has improved, but writing and editing gigs are hardly a 50/50 split. In 2011, women constituted 40 percent of newspaper newsroom employees (it took 12 years to gain just 4 percentage points). Major magazines publish seven stories by men for every one by a woman. Men dominate the National Magazine Awards. It doesn't always get better—last year, women made up only 22 percent of local radio employees, a significant drop from the 2010 numbers. And though an aspiring journalist’s career path is no longer confined to slow-moving legacy media like Newsweek and the New York Times, the online landscape is not necessarily a more gender-equitable one. (Lest you think women are simply opting out of the profession: 73 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates are women.) This may seem like a niche issue—journalism is an elite career, and cracking into it is hard for anyone—but the industry's gender gap reverberates widely. Last year, less than a quarter of news stories were written about women.

Unfortunately, modern journalism's lingering gender hang-ups cannot all be explained through statistical analysis. In her Times review of Povich’s book, Anne Eisenberg writes that “at Newsweek in the mid-1960s … the problem was sexism, pure and simple.” The problem with journalism today is that its sexism is not simple. When Povich started at Newsweek, women were literally barred from journalism’s boys club—the National Press Club did not begin admitting female members until 1971. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the sex-discrimination lawsuits that followed successfully challenged such blatantly sexist displays in American newsrooms. They also cleared room for quieter, subtler forms of sexism to take their place.

Today's sexist employer knows that he can no longer get away with pinching butts by the water cooler or explicitly barring women from the ladder’s highest rungs. But between clearly actionable sex discrimination and full gender equality lies an extensive menu of workplace tactics by which employers can marginalize women. (At my first post-college job interview, for example, I was asked to defend why the men in the office would take me seriously; later in my career, I watched a female editor break into all-male upper management, only to be neutralized, demoted, and fired within a year. And working mothers have their own set of obstacles.) When Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff was ousted for sexual harassment last month, journalist Ann Friedman voiced surprise at the development—not that an editor harassed, but that he was called out for it. “Most of the time, sexual harassment is not easily verifiable, not obvious to outsiders,” Friedman wrote on her blog. “Sure, sometimes there are emails or—shudder—voicemails. Irrefutable proof. But mostly harassment is a series of seemingly minor infractions: a quick ‘joke’ about your legs, lots of inquiries about your sex life, three compliments about your looks for every one compliment about your work, a creepy gaze, a lingering touch.”

When sexism comes in the form of 1,000 little glances and borderline comments, women are left to guess whether we are overanalyzing and perhaps aren’t especially eager to identify ourselves as the recipients of unwanted male attention (we wouldn't want anyone wondering whether our legs actually did get us this job). And when we do speak up, we risk placing a target on our backs, with no legal counsel to back us up. Instead, we speak in code about male harassers, shoot knowing Gchats across the conference table, and write sexism blind items into our blog posts. What else are we going to do? Sue?