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Women in the workplace: How 'good girls' fight back

Hands and lips don't wander the way they did when a group of women filed a groundbreaking lawsuit at Newsweek in 1970. But women still face sexism at work.

October 07, 2012|By Lynn Povich
  • How do you combat the kind of subtler sexism that exists in today's workplace?
How do you combat the kind of subtler sexism that exists in today's… (Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles…)

I was one of 46 women who, in 1970, sued Newsweek magazine for workplace gender discrimination. We were protesting a system in which all but one of the writers and editors were men and the women clipped newspaper stories, checked facts and did research — lower-paying jobs without much opportunity to move up. In our job interviews, we were told: "Women don't write at Newsweek. If you want to be a writer, go someplace else." Which is exactly what Nora Ephron, Ellen Goodman, Jane Bryant Quinn and Susan Brownmiller did. They left.

The rest of us "good girls" stayed, thrilled to be working in a newsroom on the important issues of the day. But it was also the "Mad Men" era — married bosses had affairs with women who reported to them; a randy writer passed by the desk of one young woman and planted a kiss on her neck; a researcher was stalked by her senior editor, who had a crush on her. He told her if she didn't marry him, she would have to leave Newsweek — which she did.

We were the first women in the media to sue, but our landmark lawsuit had largely been forgotten — even at Newsweek — as if it had all been a dream. A little more than two years ago, I got a call from two young women at Newsweek who, in the course of writing about workplace issues facing women today, discovered our 40-year-old lawsuit.

Some things had changed at the magazine.

The women who contacted me were reporters and writers (there are no researchers at the magazine anymore). But still, these women felt some of the same frustrations we had felt 40 years earlier. They were not listened to; men with equal or lesser credentials were getting better assignments and faster promotions; and although flagrantly wandering hands — or lips — were no longer winked at, there was still inappropriate behavior. One male editor told one of these women that her problem was that she was so pretty, she had to figure out how to use her sexuality to her advantage.

The discrimination we faced was blatant, illegal and easy to identify. The question I'm asked now is how do you combat the kind of subtler sexism that exists in today's workplace?

The first thing I say is document it. It's important to show that you don't just "feel" marginalized but rather that there is a pattern of discrimination at work: If the mutual fund you run performs as well as or better than your male peer's, but he is getting more pay and faster promotions; if there are consistently more male bylines than female, even on stories related to women; if women aren't getting promoted into managerial jobs or assigned to major accounts — then collect the data. If you count it, you can change it.

What you do with the data depends on your office relationships. If the Human Resources person is trustworthy — and make sure you are afforded confidentiality — then ask him or her to look into it. If you have a mentor in management or a sympathetic top boss, show him or her. And if you don't, consider having a lawyer write a letter pointing out the pattern. That could start a conversation, and the company might respond without any legal action necessary.

It's easy for gender stereotypes to rule in the workplace, so we need to tip the balance toward more objective ways to evaluate talent and experience. In 1980, when Abbie Conant auditioned behind a screen for the Munich Philharmonic orchestra, she landed a coveted position as a trombonist. Blind auditions are now standard practice for orchestras following an influential Harvard-Princeton study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse. They found that a screen increases the probability — by 50% — that a woman will advance out of preliminary audition rounds.

A 2012 collaborative study at Harvard's Business School and the Kennedy School showed that if candidates for assignments and promotions were evaluated at the same time — for example, the results of their past performances were presented comparatively — interviewers tended to rely less on stereotypes and more on the evidence presented. But if candidates were assessed one at a time, the interviewers were more likely to revert to stereotypes: Men were more often placed in jobs with math-related tasks, women in jobs with verbal ones.

We also have to face the more difficult issue of whether women are doing enough to push themselves forward. In the corporate world, says Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, "women have to sit at the table, not on the sides." They have to "raise their hands" and keep them raised. And most important, she says, women have to negotiate for themselves, take risks and reach for the promotion, even if they are contemplating having children. "Don't leave before you leave," she advises, and you'll go back to a more challenging and rewarding job.

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