Fifty years from now the struggle for workplace equality might be remembered as just another relic from one of the embarrassing bits of American history. That women working in media 50 years ago could only aspire to be secretaries is certainly a head-scratcher today — yet the struggle for equal protection, pay and respect in the workplace is as real right now as it was in 1970 when Lynn Povich and 45 of her coworkers filed a sex discrimination complaint against their employer, Newsweek, in a landmark step for women in journalism. Just ask Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
Prominent women, from reporters to actors and performers like Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, and Gabrielle Union, are calling attention to the pay disparities endemic to the culture of the entertainment and media industries. Povich, whose account of her and her colleagues’ suit against Newsweek, “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace,” was recently adapted as a series on Amazon, at a time when this issue is still at the forefront of the national conversation about gender equity in the workplace.
On Nov. 17 Povich will come to Drexel and join Karen Curry, director of the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies and a former producer at NBC and CNN, to continue this discussion with screen excerpts from “Good Girls Revolt.” Curry, who headed up CNN’s New York bureau during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, worked her way to a leadership role in broadcast media not long after Povich was breaking a trail in print journalism. She faced many of the same challenges — ones that even today’s graduates will need to think about as they enter the workforce.
Povich and Curry recently took time to discuss their experiences and lend some insight on how society can move toward correcting this entrenched injustice.
What was it like for you to be a woman working her way up to a leadership role in the newsroom, not that long after Lynn and her peers began pushing back against these discriminatory policies?
Curry: I actually started working as a secretary at NBC in the early ‘70s, with really no sense of staying there beyond that summer — after which I would go off and ‘find myself” But after working on the political conventions as a secretary, I was hooked on news.
In those days, young women’s entry-level jobs were secretarial while the young guys got hired as desk assistants and were on the editorial track from the start. I knew I needed to veer more onto an editorial track. When I spoke to HR about a job I saw posted, the HR guy said he didn’t see me in that role but would keep an eye out in case a “lightweight” job came around that he felt would be good for me! I am still mad at myself for not telling him to go jump in the lake!
After that I found some mentors who believed in me (and by the way, who also knew I would work like a dog!) and I just took on every opportunity and challenge I could find. My advice to women is don’t become men. Don’t change your personality to somehow get more gravitas. You have plenty of gravitas and you will find your own way to be strong without feeling you need to be tough and your co-workers and bosses will respect that.
What are some of the ways that you see women in the news business fighting for equality today (whether it’s pay, career opportunities, etc)?
Povich: One of the most effective ways to fight discrimination is to document it. Several organizations—the Women’s Media Center and VIDA, women in literary arts—count how many women are in top positions and get bylines in publishing and the news media. Their surveys have tremendous power to hold media accountable and give women good ammunition to fight for their rights. There are also a lot of effective online efforts by feminists to stop misogyny on the internet and the harassment of women, including many women journalists, on social media.
Curry: One of the toughest things for women on camera is the obsession with looks and aging in television. Along with that goes the shorter on-air careers of many female journalists. Whereas many men work well into their 70s, just look at Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, CBS’s Bill Plante. With the exception of CBS News, most networks are pretty devoid of on-air women much older than 50. Hats off to the bosses at CBS News who just named 65-year-old Jane Pauley as the new anchor of “Sunday Morning.”
I think there is still pay disparity in news, just as there is in the film industry and most of the people in the top executive positions in news divisions and on shows in broadcast journalism are still men. But it will be interesting to watch Megyn Kelly’s upcoming contract negotiations with Fox News. Will she surpass Bill O’Reilly’s salary? And if she leaves to go somewhere else, what will she make?
Another big issue for women, and more and more for men, is the demands of parenting. News is unforgiving in its time commitment and that is a tough one to crack.
Management should offer more childcare options and be more understanding of scheduling issues, but that can be tough in the 24-hour news cycle that all organizations are now part of. And, if a journalist wants more understanding scheduling, she/he also has to be willing to perhaps not be there for all the big stories and that is a hard decision to make.
How did the success of the fictional “Mad Men” series help bring attention to the very real discrimination that so many in the news business, and many others, have lived through?
Povich: “Mad Men” certainly got people interested in the period and had some wonderful male characters. But I think the two working women—Peggy and Joan—beautifully portrayed the restricted roles of women in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and set up the period for Good Girls Revolt, which begins in 1969. There was still a lot of chauvinism in the ‘70s, which wasn’t just sexual harassment but about how women were undervalued and dismissed as professionals.
Curry: I think “Mad Men” helped show the outrageous overt sexism of that time with scenes where you literally gasped at what these guys were saying. Things are toned down a lot now and more women are in managerial positions in newsrooms but let’s be honest – it’s still there. You just have to read Gretchen Carlson’s deposition about conversations she had with Roger Ailes at Fox News or listen to the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape to see that sexism is alive and well. These conversations might not be heard out loud in the newsroom as much now, but if you put your ear up to the door of the corner office, sadly, at times it seems you may feel as though you’re outside Don Draper’s office.
What does this show hope to add to the public dialogue on this issue? Clearly it’s still a problem (e.g. Roger Ailes situation) so how does it balance nostalgic appeal with continuing a conversation about a problem that persists to this day?
Curry: I would hope that the show would actually help us question our biases writ large. Today’s newsrooms are notoriously non-diverse. The numbers of journalists of color and LGBTQ journalists are disappointing, to say the least. It is so obvious that newsrooms should reflect the audience and although there is a lot of lip service given to that, in the last 10 years, diversity has actually gone down slightly in newsrooms. If the series makes us take a look at all of our biases, that would be a good thing.
What are some of the things those in leadership roles should do to combat subtle, systemic or implicit biases that might still exist in the workplace?
Povich: The most important thing is to be aware of the fact that we all have biases and most of us don’t recognize it. Sheryl Sandberg talks about this and Facebook is now sharing its unconscious bias training on the web for anyone or any company to use. I have been to law firms that are now doing unintentional bias training. I believe corporate culture comes from the top so I think the leadership of any company or organization is responsible for tackling this issue and making sure everyone understands it.
Curry: I think the Access Hollywood tape was a wake-up call for all of us. When I first listened to it, I thought of how often all of us have been in situations where we may have actually enabled that kind of talk ourselves. There were five other people on that bus, but when you have a billionaire television star and the show’s anchor on board, how to do put a stop to it?
Leadership at these companies should set a tone. They should not only not talk like this, they should make it very clear to their employees that that kind of talk won’t be tolerated from anyone. They should create an atmosphere in which someone can bring concerns like this to them without fear of reprisal.
What message do you have for college seniors approaching entry in the workforce today?
Povich: The first thing to do when you are offered your first job is to make sure you negotiate a fair salary. Women tend not to negotiate well and a lower salary penalizes them for the rest of their lives. It’s difficult to know exactly what that is, so do the research. Compare salaries at competitive places, ask around, look at industry standards. I would also look at the composition of the leadership in the firm or organization to see how diverse it is and what their policies are concerning flexible hours, paid leave and maternity/paternity leave.
Curry: I urge anyone going into the news business to make sure you absolutely love news because it’s more than a job. I know this sounds corny, but in many ways it’s a kind of calling that will consume most of your time. At times, it will break your heart but it can also give you a sense of great accomplishment. Don’t lose your sense of humor. Enjoy the collaborative nature of the work and be yourself — your best self!
Povich and Curry will continue this discussion and look at the Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt” on Nov. 17. The event is free and open to the public, it will be held at the URBN Annex Screening Room at 7 p.m.
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