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Sexism still a threat to women in media

Lynn Povich, a long-time journalist and involved in the 1970’s sexism lawsuit against Newsweek, discussed her newest book and shared her experiences in Palo Alto on Mon. Oct. 1. (Amber Mendoza)

Gender equality in the media profession has made significant progress over the past 40 years, yet in 2010, for every story written by a woman, there were seven stories written by men.

This is just one of the statistics written in Lynn Povich’s new book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.

A journalist for nearly 50 years and involved in the 1970 sex discrimination lawsuit against Newsweek, Povich shared her expertise on sexism toward women in media at Books Inc. in Palo Alto on Monday, Oct. 1.

“I think what young women are up against is a kind of sexism that is far subtler than the one we faced that was so clearly illegal and so blatantly obvious,” Povich said.

She explained that despite the lawsuits, sexism is not dead in the newsroom. Though today’s sexism may not be the direct, obvious schemes of the early 20th century newsroom where an employee was denied a position simply because she was a woman, it may be that a quicker promotion is given to a man with less experience.

“There’s a great deal of evidence that we’re experiencing slippage in the last decade, that women are losing ground that they’ve won,” said Mills College Journalism Program Head, Sarah Pollock.

Hired by Newsday in 1982, Pollock recalls her recruitment in the wake of the many sex discrimination proceedings in media of the ‘70s, and the great accomplishments of these women, particularly the feat of getting women’s issues on the front page.

“I always felt that I owed a great debt to the women who launched those lawsuits, and frankly I think society owes a great debt to those women,” Pollock said.

The lawsuit in 1970 against Newsweek was one of several suits filed against news and magazine corporations for similar charges.

One woman became, and remained, a researcher for Businessweek, though she was an experienced editor for The Harvard Crimson.

Her friend, Laurel Hayler, an audience member at Povich’s discussion, recalled her experience at Businessweek during their college years together.

“Law school helped her a lot…but being a researcher didn’t help her at all,” Hayler said.

A 1965 graduate from Harvard’s coordinate school, Radcliffe College, Hayler remembers her friend being involved in the case agains Businessweek for discrimination due to its refusal to promote her to any other position.

“This is some deep-seated, cultural bias which somehow views women as less competent,” Povich said.

With an atmosphere saturated by the Civil Rights and feminist movements, women cultivated the sort of confidence that brought them to stand on top of their male boss’ desks and demand that they be treated fairly.

Today, however, Povich reminds us that there is still work to be done.

“We had the advantage of a great movement behind us, and a lot of excitement, and a lot of energy, and these young women don’t have that movement,” said Povich. “There’s been enormous progress…but what you don’t see is very many women at the top.”

Povich attributes this to a slight alteration of the phrase “ambition gap” used by Facebook COO’s Sheryl Sandberg, one of the few women in a top position within the media. Povich believes this female generation lacks confidence.

“I don’t think it’s an ambition gap, these young women are ambitious. I think it’s a confidence gap, and it’s a risk-taking gap. There’s no question…that women who negotiate for their salary are punished for it.”

The fear young women face today is incredibly similar to the fear felt by the women in the 1960’s. It was during this time of her speech that Povich made a call to arms to all the elder women in the audience.

“These young women…need us as mentors, they need us as role models,” Povich said. “We should help them have a new women’s movement, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Within this new movement, more women will get involved in media, attain leadership positions and become mentors, which Povich believes will help in the removal of gender barriers. Through her efforts as an advisor for the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Women’s Division of Human Rights Watch, Povich continues to seek new ways to empower women through various media channels, including the issues of economic and reproductive rights for women in Africa and Latin America.

Both Povich and Pollock agree that mentoring is the most powerful tool for building confident women.

“It’s extremely important to support women in advancing their careers and…this is extremely important to the women at Mills, not just those in journalism,” Pollock said. “(Without) women’s stories and women’s issues…in the spotlight…we don’t have a fair portrayal of society and we’re not making fair decisions.”

Povich encouraged women to keep track of and document any suspicious patterns in the workplace and to get involved in politics in order to help prevent sexism in the workplace.

“Get women to run for office, help women get into office,” Povich said. “We have to change the corporate systems. We have to change the political system.”

Encouraging the potential mentors in the audience, Povich ended her speech with a door not yet closed on the future of young, female journalists.

“I’m rooting for this generation.”