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Woman Who Sued Newsweek to End Ban on Female Writers Questions Purported ‘Ambition Gap’

Posted Sep 17, 2012 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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In the 1960s, aspiring women journalists at Newsweek were limited in their career choices.

One of those women was Lynn Povich. "At Newsweek, women were hired on the mail desk to deliver mail, then to clip newspapers, and, if they were lucky, became researchers or fact checkers,” Povich tells NPR in an interview. That changed after Povich and other women working at the news magazine hired Eleanor Holmes Norton, then New York City’s human rights commissioner, and lawyer Harriet Rabb of Columbia Law School and sued their bosses.

Povich tells the story of their successful lawsuit in a new book called The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed Their Workplace. The suit was filed by 46 women who revealed the filing in a 1970 news conference, according to a March 2010 Newsweek cover story about the suit.

Povich told NPR that women took menial jobs because it was the accepted way of doing things. "We were so happy to be working in an interesting place ... surrounded and talking about the news of the day," she said. "The world of the '60s still had classified ads that were segregated, 'Help Wanted-Male' and 'Help Wanted-Female.' And most of the female occupations were nurses, teachers, secretaries and jobs of that sort.

"And I think that, as one of the men said, we were all blind. I mean, the men accepted this system, and those of us who stayed at Newsweek accepted this system."

The Newsweek journalists who wrote about the case spoke with Povich about her book in a Daily Beast interview. Povich asked what they thought of the assertion that there is an “ambition gap” among young women today.

One of the journalists, Jessica Bennett, answered this way: “I don’t think it’s an ambition gap, but a confidence gap. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in meetings with women who have impeccable research abilities, bright, talented women, who, despite knowing that they have a good idea, or a great pitch, begin their sentences with, 'I’m not sure if this is a good idea, but ...' And, to the other end, I can’t tell you how many men I know who, despite having a total bullshit idea, without an ounce of research, will clear their throats, put on their most authoritative voice, and convince a room that whatever it is they’re selling is the greatest idea ever known to, well, man. And, the worst part: you see editors, business executives, bosses—both male and female—fall for this, time and again.”

Povich replies that there is still a boys’ club at the top of many organizations, and the corporate suite isn’t very welcoming for people with children. “In this day and age, and with technology, you’d think there would be more flexibility to do the job, but alas there isn’t,” Povich says. “Finally, I think young women do have to push themselves forward, take more risks, and once in management positions, help change the corporate culture to make it more equal.”

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