I didn’t fully understand what the wage gap meant for women until I was renegotiating a contract in 1994 as an overseas producer for CBS News based in London. I suspected I was being underpaid, so I called a few male producers at CBS who had my same level of experience and asked them how much they were making. Forty percent more, I learned.

I was stunned. I’d covered two wars for CBS, won an Emmy in the nine years I’d worked there, all the while sacrificing special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and vacations to broadcast breaking news. In return, I found out I was being paid less than men who were doing my same job. I called up the vice president of news in New York. We had words. I hung up on him. He hung up on me. He boosted my salary; it was still 18 percent less than the men were getting. That was as high as he could go, he told me, and if I didn’t like it, I could leave.

The experience was an epiphany. I had always been interested in women’s work issues but had never before fully analyzed the dynamics of my workplace. Before I’d found out what the men were making, I’d met with the other female producer in the bureau to discuss our salaries—she earned slightly more than I—but we were satisfied that we were in the same range.

It turned out we were making the classic mistake women often make, according to psychologist Brenda Major, in comparing ourselves to one another instead of with men. Major observes that this same-gender comparison reduces women’s distress over feeling second-class within an organization, but it also erodes their sense of entitlement to better treatment. Comparing ourselves first to the male producers would have illuminated disturbing discrepancies, which we then could have brought to the attention of the bureau chief, and at least introduced the issue of gender equity. However, I didn’t pursue this strategy at the time because I was immediately transferred to New York, and until I began reporting on women and work issues, I was unaware of how to push for institutional change.

Because there are now so many women in the labor force, there is a tendency among the general public—journalists included—to think the “women’s problem” has been solved. The high visibility of working women distracts us from questions of fairness in the workplace. Yet, compared with years past, today there is little in-depth coverage of gender discrimination and sexual harassment issues in the workplace, including lawsuits brought against corporations, and very little talk about women’s issues even within news organizations.

Yet serious disparities persist. In 2000, female editors and reporters, on average, earned 90 percent of what male reporters and editors earned, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This wage gap results in female journalists having significantly less personal financial power than their male counterparts. Suppose a female reporter begins her career at 21, earns $35,000, and receives a four percent annual increase until she retires at 66. If her male counterpart earns 10 percent more per year than she does, and works for the same period of time, he will earn $444,000 more than she does after a lifetime of work. If she takes off five years of work (the average amount of time women are away from their jobs) between 30 and 35, he would earn $714,000 more, in today’s dollars, than she does.

The value of this financial disparity can be measured in opportunities lost—the compromised college education of children, the smaller home, and less secure retirement. Because women earn less, they receive smaller pensions when they actually need larger ones because they live, on average, seven years longer than men do.

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1972, several women at The New York Times launched a fierce protest against management alleging they earned 87 percent of what men made, only three percent worse than the average disparity of print journalists today. Their complaint formed the basis of a class discrimination suit against the company which, after years of determination, the women eventually won.

Why do we hear no protest today about the wage gap? In part, it is because there are now significantly more women journalists on the payroll. Some of them, and certainly many of their forebears, were hired as a result of lawsuits that removed the barriers to entry and replaced them with affirmative action programs. Many more women now occupy some of the most prestigious and highly compensated beats, as White House reporters, foreign correspondents, and columnists. And more are in management positions.

Much of their struggle is now waged more discretely within institutions. Understanding this is key to their advancing within these organizations and to reporting on relevant issues in women’s lives. When Maggie Steber became director of photography at The Miami Herald in 1999, she noticed a discrepancy in the pay of photographers who worked there. “There would be a woman who had been here as long as a man, for example, who was in my opinion as good if not better a photographer and who hadn’t been rewarded for it,” she said. She examined the salaries and thought they formed a pattern showing the women were paid less than the men were. When Steber brought this to the attention of the assistant managing editor—a woman—she “very grudgingly allowed me to make some changes,” Steber says.

After the editor changed jobs and the position of assistant managing editor was eliminated, Steber went directly to the executive editor and the managing editor. “They freaked out because they thought I was talking to the photographers about this. I said ‘No, I am bringing this to your attention so we can make this right before something does come of it,’” said Steber, who persisted because she felt she had the law on her side.

Steber, who had no previous managerial experience and, in fact, had been a freelance photographer for 25 years before joining the Herald, saw the increases as a way to develop what she describes as her “stellar” staff. “Money is a reward for dedicating yourself to your profession and a reward for what you create,” she said.

Although the women photographers at the Herald had compared their salaries and knew they were low, Steber suspects they were afraid to organize and confront management. She’d been told that the previous manager played the photographers against one another. After I studied corporate management at the Harvard Business School during my Nieman year, I learned about this technique: Some companies induce employees to compete against each other in the belief that it makes workers deliver their best work.

CBS is organized this way. It offers individual contracts to its “talent,” a show business term for its producers and reporters. Private negotiations occur between the employee or her lawyer and the network’s lawyer. The company offers an increase, and the employee tries to raise it by arguing how important she is, or by presenting a higher offer from a competing network.

By the time I left CBS News in 1997, how salaries were determined was a mystery to me. There were no published pay scales for the editorial staff, and no one seemed to know what items went into the mix in determining salary levels. It was rumored that story count mattered, but records weren’t reliable because producers’ names were often left off the program rundowns. In 13 years at the network, I never received a performance review. Raises seemed to result from whether an executive producer liked someone and thought she was doing a good job.

The subjectivity of the compensation process keeps employees guarded and dissuades them from organizing for higher salaries. Workers fear they’ll be penalized for questioning their managers. Realistically, the best way to overcome this intimidation is to reach out to others, discuss perceived problems, and join forces in investigating pay and promotion practices within the organization. I would bet that CBS News today would help employees conduct such an analysis. Upper management has changed in the past few years, and they recently settled a sex discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for eight million dollars over the alleged lack of promotion, sexual harassment, and retaliation against female technicians at its owned TV stations.

Addressing salary disparity within a union is easier because often there are records, and there is also a collective consciousness about workers’ rights. In order to find out salaries at The New York Times during the 1970’s, Betsy Wade, a foreign editor, Grace Glueck, a reporter, and a few other members of the Women’s Caucus spent long hours at the New York office of the Newspaper Guild copying salaries. As Nan Robertson vividly recounts in her book, “The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times,” the women said they needed the information for negotiations, that the names would be expunged, and the chairman of the guild, Harry Fisdale, gladly obliged their request.

In more recent years, women staffers at The Philadelphia Inquirer raised questions about whether or not they were being paid the same as the men were. Jane Eisner, who was then the editorial page editor and the highest-ranking woman at the paper, helped organize a salary review, which took place in 1997. “The human resources department at PNI [Philadelphia Newspapers Inc], the company that owns the Inquirer, surveyed all the salary data of the guild members, not of the very top editors, but those who were in the union, and looked at pay for males and females according to what they did, broke it down into departments, and while we did see a few discrepancies in a couple of places, overall the picture was one of fairness,” she said. “It was an interesting experiment. I give the paper credit for allowing us to do the research. People felt they weren’t being valued enough. But it was instructive to know that the facts show otherwise.”

Clearly, some news organizations welcome challenges and ideas from managers, as well as the rank and file. Though the labor department documents an average pay deficit among journalists, it doesn’t explain why men earn more than women do. It might indicate an institutional bias against paying women the same amount as the men. Perhaps some managers still believe it is the duty of men to support families, that women don’t need to work, or that women will accept less. It might be because men occupy more powerful positions—positions into which women aren’t promoted in equal numbers.

The proof of how far a newspaper has come in valuing and rewarding its female journalists can be seen on the masthead. The top three editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, to name a few, are male. Since 1977, women have been the majority of journalism majors, but something happens to them on the ladder to the top. Women comprise only 34 percent of newsroom supervisors at U.S. newspapers, and 24 percent of news directors at U.S. television stations. They are in the minority when it comes to the highest ranks of management at most networks and major newspapers.

At The Philadelphia Inquirer, Eisner was passed over to become the paper’s editor in 1999 and now is a columnist for the Sunday magazine. Although she said she was extremely disappointed about her own situation, she is more concerned there are still no top women editors. “The top editors are still all men and they shape the news coverage. They are wonderful people, all of them, and they’ve been great to me, but I just don’t feel they really understand my life and the lives of many women,” she said. “We can’t accurately write about our readers’ lives unless we understand them better.”

Why women aren’t being promoted at the same rate as men are, and why they still lag behind in pay, are pressing questions that go well beyond the news business. But they present essential editorial issues for the industry. If men hold greater editorial power in newsrooms, does this influence which stories are covered, which receive the most play?

In my recent experience as a freelance journalist, I have suspected it does. I pitched a detailed story about how the women science professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to persuade their dean that the school had discriminated against them. It was turned down by several magazines—all headed by male editors with predominately male editorial staffs. Obviously, rejections are their prerogative. But had they been sensitized to the frustrating subordination many women experience at work, or if they employed more top female editors, they might have accepted it.

By not publishing these kinds of stories, publications miss an important audience that, I believe, is eager for this information. The New York Times’ Sunday business section published an exclusive story I did on the resolution of one of the first sexual harassment cases against a dot-com company. My reporting on this situation evoked a large response: During the first 24 hours, this story was among the Times’ top five stories e-mailed by readers.

To do solid reporting on gender issues, it helps journalists to understand the power of bias and tradition that exists within organizations. By turn-ing our investigative techniques on ourselves, we could begin to challenge the assumptions that women have already “made it” and little more needs to change.

Susan E. Reed, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, writes frequently about women and work. Her pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and The American Prospect. She was awarded a grant from The Dick Goldensohn Fund for Journalists to further her reporting on women in the workplace.

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