Thursday, October 17, 2013

Q&A with author Lynn Povich

Lynn Povich is the author of The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. She spent many years at Newsweek, where she was the magazine's first woman senior editor, and also has been editor-in-chief of Working Woman and managing editor at She is a co-editor of All Those the Post, a collection of the work of her father, sportswriter Shirley Povich. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: I had taken the legal papers home with me when I left Newsweek in 1991; I was one of the few senior women left, and Radcliffe had requested them.

I wrote a book on my dad with my brothers in 2005. Then I thought I should send the [Newsweek] papers to Radcliffe, and I thought I should write a history of the papers [to provide more information about them]. I started interviewing people, and realized this could be a book.

This history was lost—people had heard of the New York Times lawsuit; Nan Robertson had written The Girls in the Balcony. No one knew the Newsweek women had been first.

Q: You begin the book by discussing a group of young women who faced the same issues that you had faced decades earlier with sexism in the workplace. What has changed, and what has remained the same?

A: There’s been enormous progress—women certainly are in the middle-to-senior management, but they’re rarely at the top. Though in the last year or two, there has been Tina Brown [at Newsweek/The Daily Beast] and Jill Abramson [at The New York Times].

Now there’s a woman [Deborah Turness] running the NBC News division—the first woman to run a network news division. There’s a woman [Nancy Gibbs] running Time. Maybe whenever things get bad they put a woman in.

Earlier, there were women at The Oregonian, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer … Each moment is a picture in time; it ebbs and flows.

There are not enough women in leadership positions, not as many women sources and voices, not enough on television. There are still sexist depictions of women in the media. [There’s] the pay gap, the glass ceiling, and sexual harassment.

What’s interesting about the young generation is that they do really well in school. Girls do better in school. Then they go into the work world, and they’ve never before experienced discrimination in school. They meet obstacles they’ve never met before. [The young women of today in the book] didn’t identify it with a gender issue, they thought they must not be good enough. That’s the kind of subtle discrimination that still exists--old boys’ clubs.

Q: What was the overall impact of your lawsuit?

A: The immediate impact was that it opened doors for other women to sue. Three months later there was a suit at Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Then the door opened, and there were suits at the AP, NBC, and The New York Times. One woman [I spoke with] said that this was not only [affecting] the media, but she had worked in an advertising office, and read about the Newsweek case and [considered a suit]—there was an impact beyond the media.

It changed Newsweek. We started to hire men as researchers, and I became the first woman senior editor in August 1975. Meetings were integrated. There was an immediate impact on the magazine. [Newsweek editor] Osborn Elliott said it made it a better magazine. It changed our lives. None of us would have had those opportunities so quickly.

Q: How does the news business compare with other fields when it comes to the treatment of women employees?

A: Today, certain fields are feminized. Medical schools are at about 50 percent. Law school is about 50 percent. Not that many women choose the financial services business; there’s a pay gap among MBA graduates. I find that some of the unhappiest women I know are lawyers in firms. Many leave for corporations. The law firms haven’t changed that much.

In academia, 28 percent of full professors are women. That’s pretty low. About 18 or 19 percent of Congress and 16 to 18 percent in the corporate suite are women. The problem is that it’s low, but also that it’s been [the same] for 10 years.

Q: What has been the reaction to your book?

A: It’s been overwhelming to me. I was very worried that no one would want to read about a lawsuit from 40 years ago. I’m lucky that the young women called me, and that allowed me to [incorporate recent material]. I’m lucky that this was published after Mad Men, and the interest in that era, and after the presidential campaign, which put women’s issues on the front burner.

There’s the Sheryl Sandberg book and the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece. I’ve been speaking to women’s groups, law firms, young men and women at universities. It’s resonating among a larger group. It’s a moment to talk about what hasn’t changed, and what needs to change.

Q: How difficult was it for you and the other women to go into work every day during the lawsuit? How were you treated in the newsroom?

A: Some of our bosses were very supportive. But a lot of the guys didn’t like affirmative action…. Osborn Elliott, had he stayed on the editorial side, would have made changes. He was the father of three girls. It was the middle-management level where a lot of discrimination took place. The three women who tried out as writers after the lawsuit all failed their tryouts. We knew those guys didn’t want them to succeed…

Going in was a little [testy] with certain people, but most of our bosses were supportive. They worked with us every day, and knew we were talented. But it wasn’t a fun time, particularly for those women who stuck their necks out.

Q: What do you think of the decline of Newsweek?

A: It is so sad for all of us. It was such a great and important magazine. It really mattered what Newsweek and Time put on their covers; they had great reporters and writers. It hasn’t been that way for a long time. The whole industry is in turmoil. …

Q: What do you see as the future for print journalism?

A: My husband [Stephen Shepard]’s book about the failure of journalism came out the same week as my book. With the exceptions of The New York Times and a few others, probably the print newspaper will disappear, or appear on certain days, or be targeted to a community.

Most will go digital. There are more journalists on more platforms than ever before. The issue is, How do we pay for quality journalism? It has yet to be seen, but [there’s the] New York Times model—people who want good stuff and are willing to pay for it.

The metropolitan papers have to change their strategy. What major city papers have to do is to go local, put their reporting into covering their city….

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: No. I’m still thinking about some issues about young women and where feminism and women are today; I have a daughter who’s 32. I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview was conducted in conjunction with The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at The JCC of Greater Washington. Lynn Povich will be speaking at the festival on Monday, November 11, at noon.

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