Viva la Feminista welcomes, Ambar Mentor-Truppa as a guest blogger today! Ambar is a Chicago-based feminist and public relations executive committed to cultivating the next generation of women leaders. As a board member and chair of Women Employed’s Advocacy Council, Ambar mobilizes young professional women to advocate on behalf of all working women and families.
“I lived through the Mad Men era!” That’s what author and trailblazing journalist Lynn Povich told the crowd gathered for a panel discussion co-hosted by Women Employed on February 13th.
The audience listened attentively as Povich continued, sharing the story of how she and her female colleagues confronted the blatant sexism at Newsweek in the 60s. When they were told that “women don’t write at Newsweek,” the women not only didn’t accept it; they fought against it. In 1970, Povich and 45 other women sued the magazine for sex discrimination.
“We loved Newsweek—we just wanted Newsweek to be better,” Povich explained. She and her Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a D.C. congresswoman. Their landmark victory sent ripples through the entire news industry, paving the way for sex discrimination lawsuits against the New York Times and the Washington Post. One measure of the suit’s success is that just five years later, Lynn became Newsweek’s first female Senior Editor.
Joining Povich at the panel discussion was recent Newsweek writer Jesse Ellison, who co-authored a Newsweek article on the 40th anniversary of the landmark lawsuit questioning how much has actually changed for working women. The two remarkable female journalists answered questions posed by moderator Peggy Davis, a nationally recognized lawyer who serves as the Executive Director for the Chicago Committee where she advances racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession.
While Povich spoke about how she and the other women experienced blatant sex discrimination, Ellison described the more subtle forms of gender bias in the workplace today. In the 2000s, she and her fellow female journalists at Newsweek watched as men around them were given plum assignments, raises, and promotions, while they were left to “walk in place.” They had been raised to believe that they could do anything, that our society had achieved equality—so it took them a long time to identify what they were facing as gender bias. “Today, it takes longer to say something is sexist,” Ellison told the crowd. “It’s a watered down version” that is consequentially “harder to pinpoint.” It was only after Ellison and her female colleagues began sharing their stories that they realized they were facing a collective problem in a flawed system rather than individual failings.
The women discussed the ways this more subtle gender bias plays out in today’s workplace. Povich described how although there are women with the experience and skills to lead, they still aren’t getting ahead. Povich called this a “leaky pipeline” problem: our workplaces aren’t structured to allow women to both be good mothers and good bosses, so many of them either opt out or are forced out of upper management positions.
fellow plaintiffs won the lawsuit with the help of the ACLU and their attorney,
During the Q&A session, the discussion touched on many of today’s hot topics for working women, ranging from the confidence gap outlined by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In to the evolution of feminism and the women’s movement. “Our feminism was a very visible feminism,” Povich told the audience, describing the sense of sisterhood and united purpose created by the women’s, civil rights, and antiwar movements. “Today, feminism is online.” She mentioned the recent article in The Nation, Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars [ed. VLF's response]. Ellison also spoke about the divisions among women today and how she and her co-authors faced backlash from other women for publishing their article on the 40th anniversary of the sex discrimination lawsuit. One of her hopes for the future is that women and men can overcome some of their differences and join together to fight against bias in the workplace.
The evening finished on a hopeful note: the message that Povich says she wants people to take from her story is that “it is possible to change the system from within.” It may not be easy, but as her own story testifies, it can happen. And what should that change look like? “The workplace has to be restructured for working parents. This isn’t a women’s problem—it’s a societal problem. And I’m hoping young men, who are far more involved in raising their children than my father’s generation was, will come together with their female colleagues, who still bear most of the responsibility for child rearing, and demand that their workplaces change.”
Watch the video below to hear Lynn Povich and Jesse Ellison talk about making change at Newsweek.