Fixing What They Can’t See: Sexism in the Workplace

Written by Catherine Meyer

The emails arrived just as the air crew began the safety briefing. I scanned the messages, switched off my phone and wept throughout the 90-minute flight from London to Geneva.

These were tears neither of grief nor joy, but of something harder to define. Throughout my last, grim years at TIME and since my involuntary April 2015 exit, I have coped by suppressing my emotions: the pain and stress of working in a poisoned environment and, latterly, the terror of taking on a giant media corporation. I had also braced against reactions to my lawsuit against TIME for sex and age discrimination. Complaints to the Federal Court are publicly viewable. I suspected that breaking news of my legal action would inflict further damage on my reputation, and I was right.

Time Inc. issued a statement: “The allegations are untrue and wholly without merit.” Now two emails gave the lie to this depiction of me as a liar.

Now, McAllester’s determined rise may have halted. His message to Newsweek staff was brief: “I need to take some time off for personal reasons.” The source suggested his leave would be permanent and had been triggered by my case.

By the time I arrived in Geneva, there had been many more calls, including offers of testimony from people who had experienced McAllester’s tenure at Newsweek or the discriminatory culture at TIME. These offers continue to arrive, along with more general declarations of support and letters that move me to tears, no matter how hard I try to remain dry-eyed. These are from other women, in journalism and unrelated fields, who in reading my story recognize their own plight and feel emboldened to fight back.

There are many reasons women put up and shut up rather than calling out workplace discrimination. We train ourselves to ignore the smaller irritants, the sexist comments, the ill-conceived jokes, the minor incursions into our private space. We know that if we object, we are at least as likely as the targets of our complaints to find ourselves marked down by managers as weak or disruptive. To take public action, as I have done, is to hang a sign around your neck emblazoned with a single word: “troublemaker.” That’s hardly likely to help my ongoing job search—which, at 56, is already complicated by ageism and the turbulence in journalism.

TIME claimed that this turbulence, rather than discrimination, underpinned their decision to get rid of me. TIME’s first-ever female Managing Editor, Nancy Gibbs, then not-yet-publicly confirmed in the post, stripped me of my duties as Europe Editor in an email sent to all of my colleagues in editorial before I was told of the move. She also ignored my vigorous objections that my proposed new title, Editor at Large, did not represent a promotion—a point illustrated further down the line when she attempted to make McAllester, by now Europe Editor, my line manager. TIME may be tempted to argue that her decisions could not be sexist or ageist—after all, Gibbs is a woman of about my own age. Yet this is the point about systemic sexism and agism: It co-opts people who should oppose it. Much of what Gibbs thought knew about me she learned from McAllester and those he had briefed. It perpetuates itself by hiding behind our habitual silence and, when that fails, by attempting to force gagging agreements on departing employees.

My sacking was dressed up as a redundancy; it could not be otherwise, because my performance reviews were excellent. TIME insisted it no longer needed my skills and experience even as it attempted to find ways to backfill the hole I left. I have no doubt at all that I fell victim to a cocktail of backstabbing and bias—unconscious and otherwise. Such experiences are multiplying across the industry. As media organizations struggle to adapt to diminishing revenue streams in the digital era, they keep trying to do more with fewer and younger staff. Newsrooms both sides of the Atlantic have never come close to reflecting the diversity of the populations they serve or addressing internal inequities such as pay and promotion gaps. Now such progress as they have made is endangered.

“In many legacy news organizations,” wrote Mizell Stewart III, president of the American Society of News Editors and vice president/news operations of Gannett and the USA TODAY Network, in an April 2017 blog, “moving the needle on staff diversity took a back seat to the survival of the enterprise.”

This matters—and not just to those of us on the sharp end of the trends. The crisis in journalism is intimately interconnected with the wider crisis in democracy. Media for a long time missed and then misinterpreted the factors propelling Donald Trump to power and in the UK misread the sentiment on Brexit and the elections that followed. If editors and reporters fail to connect with the wider public, that’s hardly surprising. They are overwhelmingly drawn from the same monochrome male elites that populate traditional politics. They are by no means all conservatives, but even those who consider themselves progressives often stand in the way of the progress they advocate. This is a phenomenon I have witnessed up close and personal since co-founding the UK’s Women’s Equality Party two years ago.

Just as male editors routinely consign stories about gender equality to lifestyle sections and programs because they do not recognize how these issues relate to them, male politicians of the left tend to overlook misogyny in their own ranks, blinded by their own sense of virtue. You cannot fix what you do not see. As a political activist and in my latest book, Attack of the 50 Ft Women, I work to make visible the mechanisms that in holding women back damage everyone.

This post originally appeared on Ms. Magazine.

Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr

59 comments

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan H2 months ago

NOTED!!

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RONALD Walker
RONALD Walker2 months ago

The problem is men think they can persuade or seduce a woman. That happens only in movies. My thinking and I hope I am wrong! That a CEO can't be a mother and a CEO at the same time. Now many super-conservatives are CEO. That could be the problem. This is what I think. Conservatives will hire a conservative thinking man. That’s the problem and when hard work woman come into the upper management. A conservatives thinking man becomes scared. No more sexually explicit jokes. That’s manly man talks. The other problem is how Conservatives thinking man think. If the woman is overweight. She is lazy. If the woman has a nice body. She used her sex to get to the top. Talk about being closed minded. That how many very conservative men think. Sorry ladies. This will be a hard nut to crack.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I2 months ago

This must stop! Noted! Thanks!

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Cruel J
Cruel J2 months ago

Noted.

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Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole Heindryckx2 months ago

2.- As my knowledge on certain issues was even better and more elaborate than that of some male surveyors, each time I opened my mouth to try to explain certain things, or to contradict them when they were wrong , MY GOD it was as if the sky fell on my head. How could I know that ?? Had I ever been on board of a ship ?? (yes many many times together with the Manager to take notes during his discussions / interrogations with the Captain of a ship) Did I know the difference between a coil and a rod ?? and so on and so forth. It was really disgusting. Although they knew I had more years of experience, and that I kept studying the files from A to Z, I was still considered a "stupid chicken" because Maritime matters were not for women... I have shed my tears about their rude and sexist behaviour, but NEVER in their presence. But neither did I shut up during discussions or meetings when I was convinced that my standpoint was better or more acceptable than that of the male Surveyors. I also learned to curse, and have a very big mouth, even if it was a Captain I was speaking to. But YES, it is a very hard world, when you have to defend and prove yourself each day against some sexist morons... The situation in the Port of Antwerp is still the same. I think this is a war a woman will never win, because it will only a very very few women versus a whole bunch of men. It's sad, but I certainly will not change it at my age. Younge

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Nicole H
Nicole Heindryckx2 months ago

Regretfully, I totally agree with this article. I started working at the age of 18, just as an employee, typing letters, contracts, making photocopies and a lot of other small jobs I had to do. However, as my interest in my job became bigger by the year, at a certain moment I was promoted as Chief Secretary to the Manager. I was working for a maritime linked company, surveying damages to cargo and/or ocean going vessels. All our surveyors were men, and I must admit, that when you are amongst a whole bunch of machos, it was very difficult to keep standing on your feet. Although I would have wanted to become a Surveyor as well, this was NOT DONE at that time (30/35 years ago) and I would have been the first woman in this capacity in the port of Antwerp. I did not push my wishes. Not because I feared the competition of all those men, but because it was as 24/24 and 7/7 job. And it was not in shifts. So one day you could easily work till 2 am in the morning, and be present at another survey at 6 am. I was luckily married, and had 1 son. If I would have battled for my position as a Surveyor, it would mean : no more family life. And I was not prepared to give up my status as a mother and a wife, just to prove I could do this job as well. However, I continued my job as Chief Secretary to the Manager and kept busy studying the most difficult files we had ever had in the past. .../2

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Bill E
Bill Eagle2 months ago

Sexism still exists and it is most apparent when you read Trumps tweets.

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Philippa P
Philippa Powers2 months ago

Thanks.

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Janet B
Janet B2 months ago

Thanks

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Janis K
Janis K2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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