Will Newsweek Respond to Claims of Sexism?

by cv harquail on March 23, 2010

I would love to have been in the room when three journalists at Newsweek proposed that Newsweek publish their article criticizing Newsweek for gender discrimination.

Why? You know you’re getting close(r) to authenticity when you can have a recursive sentence like that one written about changing things that are wrong at your organization.

Here we have an organization that was sued for gender discrimination, recently accused of sexist (mis)representations of ‘news’, and characterized as a card-carrying member of the liberal media elite, publishing an article that criticizes itself. The article is written by three journalists–  Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball— who have both the chops and the perspective to do the story right.

Thus, Newsweek has opened up a national dialogue about gender, about gender discrimination, and about its own authenticity.

But now that the dialogue is open, how will Newsweek actually respond? womn newsweek.jpg

This story is especially interesting from an authenticity perspective given the relationship between ‘who’ the magazine is, what it’s like inside the organization, and the product the organization creates. It may be that the experience and practice of sexism within Newsweek influences the intended or implicit sexism perceptible in many of Newsweek’s issues.

What’s encouraging about this story?

We have to start first by dispensing with what isn’t encouraging:

  • It’s not encouraging  that there would be gender discrimination in evidence at Newsweek or any other American organization.
  • It’s not encouraging that employees would experience gender discrimination, or see gender discrimination within this organization.
  • It’s not encouraging that it is women, themselves, who are raising the issue.

It would be great if some of the advocates were men, and it would be great if there were more women and a more diverse set of women, leading this charge. (Surely, there are more than three women and more than young, white women, working at Newsweek?) It would also be encouraging if patterns of gender discrimination were noted and actively addressed by the organization’s leadership. (Perhaps they have, we just don’t know.)

What is encouraging, then?

1. These women still have their jobs — suggesting that they are still seen as  valuable employees despite their outspoken critique.

2. These advocates were given an outlet to publicize their criticism of the organization — suggesting that Newsweek is willing to open itself up to examination and critique.

3. The organization itself has promoted their critique — suggesting that the organization is willing to participate in (if not facilitate) the conversation about its commitment to gender equity. This is a great start. But what else should Newsweek be doing and sharing, if they are to respond authentically to their employees’ concerns?

An authentic response to these claims of sexism would include:

1. Information from Newsweek about the steps they are taking to listen, understand and respond to these concerns.

2. A more explicit, documented, qualitative and quantitative analysis of what the problems actually are.

3. A response from Newsweek’s top managers leadership– the publishers and editors.

4. A commentary and analysis from Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Anna Quindlen (Newsweek’s own 2nd Wave feminist)

5. Documentation of Newsweek’s program for change.

And, for fledgling feminists and advocates everywhere, what I’d really like to see next is the story of how this all came about. No one who has ever raised a concern within her organization about gender issues will fail to wonder at the dynamics of this situation. We might be able to learn something from their story about how to advocate effectively in our own organizations.

Let’s hear more about the backstory

In anticipation that this story will continue to unfolding in a productive way, I want to hear how  Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball

  • Became aware of the gender discrimination around them
  • Connected with each other to share their concerns
  • Devised a plan for raising the issue
  • Mustered the courage to advocate.

I’d also like to hear how they have been supported (or not) by their colleagues and friends inside and outside of Newsweek. Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball have launched a blog, EqualityMyth, where we can follow them as their consciousness rises. Perhaps they’ll share some of this backstory on the blog.

If Newsweek really wants to respond to its employee advocates in an authentic way, it needs to let us all see ‘the rest of the story’ as it unfolds.

We’d love this to be a story about successfull and authentic responses to an important criticism. We’d love this story to be about building alliances, taking responsibility, moving forward, and improving the organization for everyone. It’s encouraging that Newsweek employees care enough about their organization and enough about social justice that they have become advocates with Newsweek. It’s encouraging that Newsweek has shared this story with us publicly.   And now, we need to hear about specific concerns, specific plans, and a demonstrated commitment to change from the rest of the organization.

Newsweek, it’s time to hear from you.

Thanks to Tracy Clark-Flory for her story on Slate/ Broadsheet: ‘Calling out “subtle sexism”‘ for calling attention to the Newsweek advocates.

See Also: Book review of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done, by Susan Douglas. Reviewed by (Maybe she also felt empowered by the book?

Note: I don’t think that this article can easily be dismissed as a ploy for generating traffic/readership. Despite editor editor Jon Meacham’s efforts to redirect the magazine towards “reported narratives” and “argued essays” (of which this story is a good example), there are other topics more appealing and less revealing if attention is the magazine’s goal.

That said, if you look @Newsweek’s twitter feed, they have some very “interesting” ways of promoting the story of their own accusation: as “The thinking woman’s guide to sexism: Newsweek, women and the workplace” and as a “brave & compelling feature abt young #women, Newsweek & #sexism at work”. Hmmm.

Image of Newsweek’s cover from March 23, 1970 The Visual Language of Liberation photo essay by Sarah Ball


Dr. John Nickens March 24, 2010 at 3:39 pm

thank you for this clear and concise piece. it covers the newsweek issue incredibly well, but also illuminates the issue of gender bias in a way that will cause any organization interested in the growth toward excellence to sit back and conduct a more authentic self assessement about its human ecology.

cv harquail March 25, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Hi John,
thanks for your compliment. Sometimes these issues are so complicated (as this one is, I fear) that in the effort to simplify we drop important points… and there are several of those on the floor here by my computer…
You make me think also about the differences between ‘authenticity’ as being ‘real/honest’ and authenticity as being/ striving for excellence and the best/better we can be. I know that I believe that an ‘authentic organization’ is one where everyone’s humanity is valued, and where diversity (not discrimination) reigns. And I need to think more about how this definition is linked to the more straightforward definition of ‘aligning’. thanks for the prompt. cv

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