Media Stories

'Enlightened Sexism' in Media Obscures Reality

Friday, April 23, 2010

In her latest book, Susan J. Douglas finds the treatment of women on TV is putting a haze over young women's awareness of sex discrimination. In real life, writers at Newsweek and NPR and business researchers are speaking out.

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"This wasn't something any of us noticed in school because women were excelling so much and we were surrounded by female educators," Newsweek Senior Writer Jessica Bennett, 28, told Women's eNews. Bennett is one of the authors of the cover story. "It wasn't until we set foot in the work force" that they caught on to anything amiss.

Eventually, after reading about a landmark Newsweek sex-discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s, they decided to go public about their feelings, with their editors' consent. Since then, the writers say they've been getting responses from women in all careers, from classrooms to courtrooms to construction sites.

"Most of what we're hearing has been people telling us it resonates for them," said Newsweek Assistant Editor Jesse Ellison, 31, another author of the story.

Similar Findings

NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard shared similar findings about NPR in an April piece entitled, "Where are the Women?" In it she says that though NPR has been an industry leader in staffing, with a nearly 50-50 balance of female and male correspondents and hosts, women are the minority of commentators and news sources (26 percent). "NPR needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators," Shepard wrote.

Douglas hopes those "aha" moments reflected by the Newsweek cover story and NPR piece will become more frequent and that young women, whether they label themselves feminist or not, will resist negative media depictions and organize around workplace issues such as child care and maternity leave.

"We have the worst public policies in the Western industrialized world for women, children and families," she said, speaking of subsidized day care and mandatory parental leave. "It's just pretty scandalous. If more and more young women knew this, they would get active."

Two studies by the women's business advocacy group, Catalyst, Inc., based in New York, bolster the premise that real women still face a battle for equity.

"Pipeline's Broken Promises"--also cited by the Newsweek authors--finds that even women with MBAs, with CEO-level ambitions and without family obligations faced routine salary discrepancies. On average, women made $4,600 less than men after receiving the same degree, according to the study, which surveyed over 4,000 male and female graduates of full-time MBA programs.

Women perched at the top are often precariously balanced according to Catalyst's other recent study, "Opportunity or Setback," something TV shows don't often show. The study reports that since the beginning of the current economic downturn top female executives were more than three times as likely to have lost their jobs because of company downsizing or closure than male peers: 19 percent of women in this category versus 6 percent of men.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work is available at

For more information:

"Where are the Women?" report, Alicia C. Shepard:

"Opportunity or Setback," Catalyst:

"Pipeline in Peril," Catalyst:'s_broken_promise_final_021710.pdf

Newsweek Writer's Blog::

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