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Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Good Girls Revolt: The Untold Story of the 1970 Lawsuit That Changed the Modern Workplace

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How the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media shaped the modern workplace.

In the summer of 2006, a young journalist named Jessica Bennett started as an intern at Newsweek. Shortly thereafter, three guys showed up as interns and by the end of the summer, all three of them were offered jobs but Jessica — who had been given a number of their stories to rewrite — wasn’t. Once she eventually was, a year later, she found herself getting worse assignments and fewer published articles than her less experienced male colleagues. Meanwhile, her best friend, Jesse Ellison, another Newsweek writer, had just found out that the guy who had replaced her in her previous position was hired at a significantly higher salary.

At first, it didn’t even occur to the young women — who had come of age in the post-feminist era — that there might be a gender issue at work, especially at a magazine where women comprised 40% of the masthead and the managing editor was female. But the deeply engrained boy’s-club mentality of day-to-day management became increasingly evident and frustrating for many of the women on the staff, who had started pooling together and discussing the issue. Then, one day, Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the magazine’s library, walked into Newsweek video producer Jen Molina’s office and told her that decades earlier, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine for gender-based discrimination. Shocked, Molina Googled the lawsuit but found nothing — a particularly besetting outcome for those of us who belong to the generation nursed on the notion that if it isn’t Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), Lynn Povich, one of the original Newsweek staffers who helmed the watershed lawsuit, tells its previously untold story, building — or, perhaps, deconstructing — around it a larger narrative about the tectonic shifts in gender politics in the past four decades and where this leaves us today. Not unlike Mad Men, it exposes the many social, cultural, and legal limits for women at the time, but also tells what Povich calls a “coming-of-age story about a generation of ‘good girls’ who found [themselves] in the revolutionary ’60s.” Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is that even as we read on as modern people who take pride in the progress of the past half-century, we become increasingly aware of the subtler but no less damaging sexist undercurrents that, forty years later, still permeate many social structures and cultural institutions.

At Newsweek, our ‘problem that had no name’ in the mid-1960s was sexism, pure and simple. At both Time and Newsweek, only men were hired as writers. Women were almost always hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers and rarely promoted to reporter or writer. Even with similar credentials, women generally ended up in lesser positions than men. One summer, two graduates of the Columbia Journalism School were hired – he as a writer and she as a researcher/reporter. That’s just the way it was, and we all accepted it.

Until we didn’t. Just as young omen today are discovering that post-feminism isn’t really ‘post,’ we were discovering that civil rights didn’t include women’s rights. . . . We began to realize that something was very wrong in the Newsweek system. With great trepidation, we decided to take on what we saw as a massive injustice: a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender. We began organizing in secret, terrified that we would be found out — and fired — at any moment. For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us confidence and courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.

'Women in Revolt,' Newsweek, March 16, 1970

But what makes the lawsuit most striking is that it took place immediately after Newsweek ran a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt” in March of 1970, with a screaming cover featuring a naked woman bursting through a broken female-sex symbol. As the issue hit newsstands on that fateful Monday morning of March 16, 46 of Newsweek’s female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the charge that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume subsidiary role” due entirely to their gender. It was the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media, and it garnered prolific news coverage around the world — some of which was itself appallingly emblematic of the sort of culturally condoned sexism at the heart of the lawsuit. Povich offers a chilling example:

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek of ‘Equal Rights,’” began, ‘Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine.

But the women, undeterred, moved forward with the suit. They had chosen Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to represent them. Povich recalls a monumental moment at the packed press conference:

‘It is ironic,’ [Norton] said, waving a copy of the magazine, ‘that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances noteworthy enough for such a major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves — there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.’ She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, ‘Newsweek’s caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably.’

But the irony didn’t stop there. Povich recalls:

It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek’s editors, who couldn’t have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating int he Newsweek ladies’ room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented it with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek’s editors decided that the new women’s liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.

Indeed, when the idea of a women’s liberation cover story first came up, the editors immediately realized they couldn’t have a man write it — but they didn’t trust any of the women on the staff with it. Instead, for the first time in the magazine’s history, they went outside the organizaton and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to write the piece. (Coincidentally or not, Dudar’s husband was one of Newsweek’s top writers.) As Povich recalls, this only galvanized the women at Newsweek, who then decided to time the lawsuit with the cover story’s release. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — but, oh, what riveting and reverberating history.

In an age when we celebrate how women are changing the face of media, The Good Girls Revolt is an essential piece of media history that shows us not only how far we’ve come but, with just the right amount of self-conscious cultural discomfort, how far we’re yet to go.

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Elements of the Periodic Table, Personified as Illustrated Heroes

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An irreverent take on chemistry from Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji.

As a lover of children’s books, especially illustrated science-inspired and nonfiction children’s books, I was instantly smitten with Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified (public library) by Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji, whose ingenious subway etiquette posters you might recall.

Lively and irreverent, this comic-inspired take on the Periodic Table gives each of the 118 known elements a distinctive character, with attitude and style reflective of the element’s respective chemical properties, era of discovery, and natural states. From Carbon’s ancient beard to the Nitrogen family’s rebellious mohawks to Hydrogen’s boastful might, the charming micro-vignettes nudge the young reader towards that ever-marvelous space where science and whimsy intersect.

Inside, there’s even a beautiful large-format poster of the entire personified Periodic Table:

Wonderful Life with the Elements comes from geek culture connoisseurs No Starch Press, who previously gave us The Cult of LEGO, and is the best thing since They Might Be Giants’ animated homage to the elements from their 2009 album, Here Comes Science.

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Steven Johnson on the “Peer Progressive” Movement and What the Internet Wants

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“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”

Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.

In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:

Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.

One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.

On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:

For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.

But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:

Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.

[…]

But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.

Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:

So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.

Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.

The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.

Future Perfect, which comes on the heels of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010) and The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next (2011), goes on to examine the wide-reaching impact of the peer progressive movement through a fascinating cross-section of Johnson’s characteristic seeming-deviations-that-turn-out-to-be-brilliant-allegories-for-the-core-argument, spanning everything from the history of early aviation to New York’s mysterious maple syrup event of 2005 to what the “pothole paradox” tells us about the future of journalism.

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