April 8, 2014 — In 1978, I was a young reporter for a local newspaper. A recent college graduate, I had initially been hired to write wedding and engagement announcements for what was then known as the society pages. It was not the job I wanted, but it was a chance to get my foot in the door, which I soon kicked open, moving on to feature-writing for the newly christened Lifestyle section, essentially revamped women’s pages.
It was a sign of changing times, for sure, and I was an eager, inquisitive feminist. I loved to talk to the couple of veteran female reporters on staff, and I could see that they were not as highly regarded as their male peers, who regularly got the plum assignments and higher salaries.
By now I’d been elected to office in our union, and soon started a Women’s Caucus. We would meet to air complaints and share strategies. It was around that time that The New York Times had been sued—successfully—for gender bias by a group of women staffers led by the legendary Betsy Wade.
The settlement reached in 1977 included back pay as well as a plan for the hiring and promotion of women. With the help of our union attorney, we obtained salary lists for our newspaper’s employees, and posted them on the main newsroom bulletin board. Names were blacked out, but gender and years of experience were listed—we could easily figure out who was who.
One of the most glaring examples of gender discrimination and pay inequity involved the woman who was then our food editor. She had started at the paper at the same time as the man who was sports editor. They had nearly identical years of experience, and both were serving as presidents of national organizations, she the food writers group, and he the football writers association. That Y chromosome netted him an extra $10,000 a year, a hefty sum in those days.
I remember the day we posted the salary list. Staff members stood three-deep to read it. Most of my male colleagues were supportive—a couple of them offered congratulations on bringing the inequality to light. One popular columnist, a real curmudgeon known for signing off every piece with a nod to servicemen (“Say a prayer for our boys over there”) stopped by my desk, leaned down, and whispered, “You don’t really think I hate women, do you?”
I was called into the managing editor’s office. He asked me what it was I wanted.
I said it wasn’t what I wanted, it was what we wanted: equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work.
Times have certainly changed, but I believe that is still what we all want.