“Women Don’t Write Here”: Newsweek Looks at Past and Present Sexism
This week I came across a great article at Newsweek called Are We There Yet? In the article three young women who work at Newsweek examine a long-forgotten 1970s gender discrimination case brought against the magazine, and they describe how sexism still retains its hold over the industry (among all others) today.
The article does a great job of describing the subtle, insidious forms of sexism that are the norm today and are often difficult to articulate. We’ve all heard people dismiss the existence of the pay gap by saying, It’s your own fault. Women don’t ask for enough. You don’t go for the higher-paying jobs. These things are statistically true, but they are often held up as trends that are unaffected by gender discrimination, as if women were making these decisions (to not negotiate their salaries or to not aim for the CEO’s corner office) in a vacuum. This of course is not the case; women’s decisions about their own careers can be shaped by our culture’s attitudes around gender. The article describes the problem here:
A recent Girl Scouts study revealed that young women avoid leadership roles for fear they’ll be labeled “bossy”; another survey found they are four times less likely than men to negotiate a first salary. As it turns out, that’s for good reason: a Harvard study found that women who demand higher starting salaries are perceived as “less nice,” and thus less likely to be hired. “This generation has had it ingrained in them that they must thrive within a ‘yes, but’ framework: Yes, be a go-getter, but don’t come on too strong. Yes, accomplish, but don’t brag about it,” says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl. “The result is that young women hold themselves back, saying, ‘I shouldn’t say this, ask for this, do this—it will make me unlikable, a bitch, or an outcast.’ “
The last US presidential election was certainly a good case study in how a woman with ambition can quickly be labeled mean and aggressive instead of strong and assertive.
The Newsweek article’s writers agree that the cultural attitude of their workplace has experienced a dramatic positive shift for women in the past four decades—and yet. And yet sometimes there are still the little jokes, the ones women can’t complain about without being labeled humorless bores, but that seem designed to undermine women’s confidence:
If a man takes an interest in our work, we can’t help but think about the male superior who advised “using our sexuality” to get ahead, or the manager who winkingly asked one of us, apropos of nothing, to “bake me cookies.” One young colleague recalls being teased about the older male boss who lingered near her desk. “What am I supposed to do with that? Assume that’s the explanation for any accomplishments? Assume my work isn’t valuable?” she asks. “It gets in your head, which is the most insidious part.”
The writers also examine how the workplace culture has changed by the numbers:
No one would dare say today that “women don’t write here,” as the NEWSWEEK women were told 40 years ago. But men wrote all but six of NEWSWEEK’s 49 cover stories last year—and two of those used the headline “The Thinking Man.” In 1970, 25 percent of NEWSWEEK’s editorial masthead was female; today that number is 39 percent. Better? Yes. But it’s hardly equality. (Overall, 49 percent of the entire company, the business and editorial sides, is female.)
This breakdown is reflected in a lot of the professional industries today—overall the company seems more or less equal in its gender makeup, but women still hold few of the top jobs. Women may have equal opportunity to go after the top jobs, but that doesn’t mean cultural attitudes have shifted enough to allow them to secure those jobs with no more difficulty than men face.
And plenty of evidence points to the persistence of the old, more straightforward problem of companies paying women less than men for the same job. Current cases include a suit brought against Novartis Pharmaceuticals which went to court this week, one of the largest class-action discrimination suits to ever make it to a jury trial. A suit against Wal-Mart that is the largest gender discrimination case ever is currently stuck in appeals over its class certification. How these cases play out will provide an important barometer for women’s status in the workplace today.