Then and Now: Women’s Equality at Work

Before 1970, women didn’t write for Newsweek.

Offered jobs only as researchers and fact-checkers, many women, including Nora Ephron, Ellen Goodman, Jane Bryant Quinn and Susan Brownmiller, quickly left the magazine. For others, inequality wasn’t so obvious, even six years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“We sort of didn’t realize it applied to us,” says Lynn Povich, the author of “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.”

The wheels of revolution started turning when Newsweek fact-checker Judy Gingold told a lawyer friend about the jobs available to women at the magazine. Realizing something needed to be done, 46 women, including Povich, began to organize a lawsuit.

“Now, a lot of the men we worked with closely, a lot of the writers, were big supporters of us,” Povich says. “They knew we were educated; they knew we were smart, that we were good reporters. We helped save them from making a lot of mistakes, and suddenly they, too, woke up and said, ‘Well of course women should have equal opportunity.’”

Management promised to hire and promote women. When little was done, the women of Newsweek sued again in 1972. This time, management committed to have a female senior editor by the end of 1975. In August of that year, Lynn Povich was appointed the first female senior editor of Newsweek.

“I think some men thought it was just an affirmative-action hire and that I wasn’t really qualified. I heard that one of the top editors said that it was one of the biggest mistakes that [they] had made, which was appointing me,” she says with a laugh.

“But I felt very much like I was carrying the weight, as every first woman in any job does. Like if you don’t succeed, they’ll think that no woman can succeed.”

Forty Years Later

In 2010, reporter Jesse Ellison was working at the same magazine Povich had sued. While there were obvious changes—Ellison’s position as a reporter, for example—there was still much to criticize.

Of the 49 Newsweek issues in 2009, women had a hand in writing only six cover stories. Women were only twice featured on the cover, and both depictions, in Ellison’s opinion, skewed negative: Oprah “looking hysterical” and Sarah Palin “in short shorts.”

Ellison joined female colleagues to write a story on Newsweek’s history with discrimination—“Young Women, Newsweek, and Sexism.”

“As we were doing our research on the circumstances around the lawsuit, we were looking back over mastheads and just saw how slowly things had changed,” Ellison says. “We just hadn’t come as far as people might have assumed or we would have hoped.”

How Far Have We Really Come?

Some might say the fight for women’s equality in the workplace is over. However, both Povich and Ellison point to statistics that say otherwise.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2012,” “[…] women made about 81 percent of the median earnings of male full-time wage and salary workers […].” And depending on your age, those numbers can be worse. In 2012, the women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio was 90 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds, and 75 percent for 45- to 54-year-olds.

Beyond wages, only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and Fortune 1000 CEOs are women. There are also only 20 women in the U.S. Senate and 78 in the House, which has 435 representatives.

Fortunately, it’s not all bleak. Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors in December, a car industry first; Nancy Gibbs was appointed as the first female managing editor at Time magazine in September; and women lead three of the world’s biggest defense firms.

If you find yourself facing discrimination at work, Povich suggests talking to your HR representative and documenting the issue. If you do not have a mentor at work, or an HR representative you trust, consult an employment rights lawyer, who can write a letter to your employer. In both cases, be sure to maintain confidentiality. Povich and Ellison also agree that one of the most important things women can do is to constantly have conversations with coworkers and friends about equality.

“There’s been enormous progress, but there’s still a lot of discrimination,” Povich says. “It’s like any revolution—they’re unfinished revolutions. They take a long time.”