Euphemism Patrol

06.21.13

Sexism in Media: Not Just an ‘Atmosphere’

Politico’s kingpins swatted down charges of ‘overt sexism’ in the workplace—but, Sarah Blustain writes, many newsrooms are still full of it.

It was with disgust and not a little despair that I watched this week as The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner tried to pin Politico’s editors to the mat for much-chattered-about allegations of sexism in the newsroom.

Writing in the July 1 issue of TNR, Chotiner published a wide-ranging Q&A with Politico’s top editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei, raising questions about whether the women they hired were getting a fair shake. This charge has been around for almost as long as Politico itself, and in April the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple did some counting and disclosed a departure rate among women that was twice that of men.

Faced with these questions from Chotiner, Harris and VandeHei got mad. Really mad (which is itself sort of amusing given the number of times this issue has been publicly raised). They got so mad they turned the tables—an easy twist, given TNRs hiring history—and tried to squash Chotiner and his pesky audio recorder along with him.

Forget the pot-kettle problem. The turning point—the losing point—came when Chotiner admitted to his opponents that the claims were more about “an atmosphere rather than overt sexism.”

Game. Set. Match.

It’s time for these concessions to stop. I’ve never been in the Politico newsroom, and I don’t know what went on inside beyond what I’ve read in the press. But I’ve been in male-dominated pressrooms for most of two decades, eight years of them in Washington. And I can tell you without a moment of hesitation that it’s not about “an atmosphere.” It’s about sexism.

Oh, the chorus will chime in that I don’t know anything about sexism. I was, after all, born after the approval of the birth control pill, after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and after the passage of the Equal Pay Act. I was born after discrimination based on gender was explicitly outlawed, and I was 3 when Roe v. Wade established abortion as a right. I don’t remember the for-men-only help-wanted ads, and girls’ sports were safely protected, thanks to Title IX, by the time I was had my softball mitt in hand.

According to conventional wisdom, “overt sexism,” as Chotiner calls it, is a thing of the past, and mine a sexism-free generation. This has proven a handy talking point for participants on all sides of the Great Feminist Debate. Obviously it’s useful for conservatives, but it also has been embraced by older feminists for whom the changes of their generation seemed—and correctly so—miraculous, a journey complete. By those definitions, sexism is gone, except of course in small corners where it thrives, like maybe at Hooters, or Walmart.

But here are some data points from one biography of work among media men. Not so many years ago really, and well after feminist revolution was “complete,” I went for a job interview at a magazine known for being heavily male. Like Chotiner, I asked the enlightened editors about the “atmosphere” at this magazine. They nodded. They wrung their hands. They looked me in the eye. And then someone in the room acknowledged definitively, “I don’t think a woman will ever be editor of this magazine.”

As they say, it was an atmosphere.

Then there was the time my first kid was born. I’d been working ’til all hours at a publication for more than two years. I tried to negotiate to part-time. I tried to negotiate to four days a week. I tried to negotiate to full time with one day at home. No. No. And no. And so, with a newborn but no job in hand, I left.

Then there was the time that an editor in chief called me up to complain loudly about how I (one of two woman editors at a magazine) hadn’t brought enough female bylines into the pages. He screamed. He yelled. He hung up—before I got to mention that the magazine was almost 100 percent staff written, and the writers were almost 100 percent male. (Postscript on this one: I was livid. I gathered the three other women in the office for a fuming lunch, and as we fumed our way out of the building some of our colleagues ribbed us about why all the women were walking out.)

At another job I got a new boss who called me pet names like “Sweetie” and “Hon.” I put a stop to that in a hurry, but the “atmosphere” continued. At a morning meeting that editor talked about a fancy think-tank dinner where he’d been given the finest food and cigars and liquors, prompting another staffer to ask whether they had been given “women” too. Atmosphere.

And when I finally left that job, my editor did not consult with me before he told everyone—the staff, the board—that I was leaving to take care of my children. I actually sat in a morning meeting as the announcement was made, my jaw on the floor. I hadn’t said that. I hadn’t planned that. But it certainly had the effect of ensuring that no one would think to help me take the next step in my career.

Maybe this isn’t all sexism. Some of it is atmosphere, like the way Monday-morning meetings would often start with a discussion of the weekend’s ballgame—yes, I dragged myself out of bed to arrive on time to talk about that—or the way male editors hand sources to (male) cub reporters who remind them of younger selves, or the way hormone-driven novice hires seem unable to stop their lazy eyes from dropping about eight inches below chin level when they talk to female colleagues (isn’t there a pill for that yet?). And maybe it’s atmosphere, too, the way Port magazine recently put six white male editors on its cover with the headline “A New Golden Age: The Increasing Importance of Print Media.” It was probably just that atmosphere that led my friend Ruth Franklin to write an “Open Letter to a Few Good Magazine Editors” about the cover image “that made every woman who saw it choke on her coffee this afternoon … A new golden age! It looks so much like the last one. And the one before that.”

VandeHei and Harris may be hoppin’ mad at the sexism charge. “I am sure some women felt like it was a macho environment,” he acknowledged about the early days—“three or four years ago.” “I don’t think women would say that today. … [T]here is no one here who would make that allegation now.” Maybe Politico is the standout case. Maybe three or four years was all they needed to get that “atmosphere” under control. If so, all I can say is: well done.