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(WOMENSENEWS)–Jessica Bennett grew up in the era of Girl Power. It was the 1980s, when young women were told there was no limit to what they could accomplish. The daughter of a Seattle attorney, Bennett regularly attended Take Your Daughter to Work Day with her dad and was the academic star in her family, excelling over her younger brothers and male peers. In high school, she was a member of Junior Statesmen of America, a principal in the school orchestra and a varsity soccer player.
Bennett was accepted to the University of Southern California, her first choice, but transferred after freshman year to Boston University because it had a stronger journalism program. When the Boston Globe offered a single internship to a BU student, she was the recipient.
Then Bennett got a job at Newsweek and suddenly encountered obstacles she couldn’t explain. She had started as an intern on the magazine in January 2006 and was about to be hired when three guys showed up for summer internships. At the end of the summer, the men were offered jobs but Bennett wasn’t, even though she was given one of their stories to rewrite. Despite the fact that she was writing three times a week on Newsweek’s website, her internship kept getting extended.
Even after she was hired in January 2007, Bennett had to battle to get her articles published, while guys with the same or less experience were getting better assignments and faster promotions. “Initially I didn’t identify it as a gender issue,” she recalled. “But several of us women had been feeling like we weren’t doing a good job or accomplishing what we wanted to. We didn’t feel like we were being heard.”
Her best friend at Newsweek, Jesse Ellison, was also frustrated. She had recently discovered that the guy who replaced her in her previous job was given a significantly higher salary. She was doing well as the No. 2 to the editor of Scope, the opening section of the magazine that featured inside scoops and breaking news. But that summer, a half-dozen college-age “dudes” had come in as summer interns and suddenly the department turned into a frat house. Guys were high-fiving, turning the TV from CNN to ESPN, constantly invading her cubicle and asking her, as if she were their mother, whether they should microwave their lunches. They were also getting assigned stories while she had to pitch all her ideas. Since a new boss had taken over, Ellison felt as if she had been demoted. She didn’t know what to do.
Ellison, 30, sought the advice of a trusted editor who had been a mentor to her. He told her, “You’re senior to them–shame them.” Then he said, “The problem is that you’re so pretty you need to figure out a way to use your sexuality to your advantage,” she recalled, still incredulous about the remark. “Even though I think he was just being an idiot for saying this–because he had really fought for me–hearing that changed my perception of the previous six months. I was like, ‘Wait a minute! Were you being an advocate for me because you think I’m pretty and you want me in your office? And, more important, is this what other people in the office think? Not that I’m actually talented, but this is about something else?’ It really screwed with my head.”
What was the problem? After all, women composed nearly 40 percent of the Newsweek masthead in 2009. It wasn’t like the old days, when there was a ghetto of women in the research department from which they couldn’t get promoted. In fact, there were no longer researchers on the magazine, except in the library. Young editorial employees now started as researcher-reporters.
Uncovering Past Lawsuit
One day Jen Molina, a Newsweek video producer, was talking about the magazine’s “old boys club” to Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the library. Skaggs informed her that many years before, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine’s management on the grounds of sex discrimination. Molina was shocked. She had no idea this had happened–and at her own magazine. She told Bennett, who told Ellison and the two friends began investigating. Bennett immediately Googled “Newsweek lawsuit” and “women sue Newsweek” but she couldn’t find any reference online. “Funny,” she remarked, “we’re trained in digital journalism, so we think if it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist.”
A few weeks later, Skaggs walked into Bennett’s office with a worn copy of Susan Brownmiller’s vivid chronicle of the women’s movement, “In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.” A crumpled Post-it note marked the chapter mentioning a lawsuit at Newsweek in 1970, almost 40 years earlier.
When they read about the case, it all seemed so familiar. “We realized we were far from the first to feel discrimination,” said Ellison. “So much of the language and culture was still the same. It helped drive home the fact that it was still the same place, the same institutional knowledge, the same Newsweek.”
Award-winning journalist Lynn Povich began her career at Newsweek as a secretary. In 1975 she became the first female senior editor in the magazine’s history. Since leaving Newsweek in 1991, Povich has been editor-in-chief of Working Woman, managing editor and senior executive producer for MSNBC.com and a consultant to The New York Times Foundation.
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