The Rules of the Workplace, Then and Now

The Rules of the Workplace, Then and Now
The Rules of the Workplace, Then and Now

Susan Chira, a former New York Times deputy executive editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on gender issues, and Jessica Bennett, The Times’s gender editor, sat down recently to talk about #MeToo, the recent Christine Blasey Ford, Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings and what has changed for working women.

BENNETT Echos of Anita Hill — I was just 10 years old when she testified — seem to be everywhere in this moment, from the wave of women running for office to the fact that both she and Dr. Blasey are professors. What do you remember most from that moment?

CHIRA I was a journalist at the time, and I remember the 1991 hearings vividly. They transfixed the country, and a number of women used the outrage they generated on the left to win record representation in Congress the following year, in what became known as the “Year of the Woman.” It’s important to remember how vilified women were for speaking out — how they were grilled, mocked and dismissed.

And I think many women drew the lesson that making accusations was futile, that much as in prosecutions of rape, women would be victimized twice over. We grew up not believing that we would be believed.

BENNETT And now we have #MeToo.

CHIRA Seeing men being held to account for behavior that was an open secret for decades is remarkable. On Thursday, I sat with a group of women in Maine watching the Kavanaugh hearings. There were eerie echoes and striking differences. The all-male Republican Senators were so worried about repeating the derisive and denigrating treatment of Anita Hill that they outsourced their questioning to a female sex crimes prosecutor.

Once again, we heard a woman describe a painful and humiliating experience. Once again, we saw ferocity and rage course through the testimony of the man accused of sexual misconduct. And once again, we are waiting to see how politicians — and, ultimately, voters — respond.

BENNETT The title of our conference last week was New Rules Summit, and I want to talk a bit about how the rules of the workplace have — or haven’t — changed. I am on the oldest end of the millennial generation and was very much a child of 1980s girl power — taught I could achieve anything I set my mind to. It wasn’t until my first job, at Newsweek in the early 2000s, that I began to realize that that seemingly feminist utopia I’d been raised in (it was Seattle; I had feminist parents) had not trickled down (or up?) to my own place of work. But it was confusing in a lot of ways, because I was so sure that women could do everything that men could.

So when I was passed over for promotions, or interrupted constantly when I spoke, or had my ideas stolen, or realized I was making thousands of dollars less than my male counterpart, I suddenly thought: Am I the problem? Am I not good enough? It took me learning the story of a group of women from another era — the women of Newsweek, who sued the magazine for gender discrimination in the 1970s — for me to realize, oh hey, this is a pattern.

What was it like when you started out?

CHIRA Newsrooms, as we’ve seen in the continuing exposes of #MeToo, were notoriously raunchy and sexually charged places. Gradually, such behavior receded, at least openly, and some men were even transferred or quietly encouraged to leave.

BENNETT One of the things I often hear my generation lament is the lack of mentors — or that we need to do a better job of mentoring the women who are now coming up. Did you feel supported when you were starting out?

CHIRA When I entered the working world, I too believed that the doors were open — and certainly my generation encountered so much more opportunity than the heroines who came before us. I well remember seeing women whose careers were completely stymied. But many of us who entered at that time were delighted to be given good assignments, promoted, dispatched around the country or the world.

But I believe that we underestimated the subtlety of the barriers and the need to think about systemic ways of crashing through them. We thought if we put our heads down and did great work, we would advance to leadership. And of course that was not always true.

So I think my generation — at least early in our careers — did not do enough thinking about how to more actively advocate for other women, to raise questions about how good leadership was defined in male terms and overlooked in women, to agitate to make sure women got the same opportunities to prove that they could rise in the ranks as men did. That changed, and many of us began looking more systemically at what needed to be done. But your generation was primed to do that sooner.

BENNETT Do you think there are generational differences in the way that women — and men — have responded to #MeToo?

CHIRA I think younger women grew up with different cultural and educational signals, and heightened awareness about what harassment is and why you shouldn’t stand for it. My peer group was breaking barriers, and to some extent we were focused on getting to that next rung, and enduring whatever it took. We wanted to be taken seriously, to have the chance to prove what we could do.

Of course, young women still face what we faced — the risk of speaking out about men with the power to derail your career. It still takes courage, and so many women still suffer the consequences. But now there are consequences for the men. I think younger women who I know are far more impatient, far less accepting and far quicker to recognize the potential for bias.

BENNETT A colleague recently told me about how, in the 1990s when she worked at a start-up, the male bosses’ solution to women complaining about sexual harassment was to build a literal wall down the center of the office to separate men from women. The modern-day version of that seems to be the fear that men will simply extract themselves from professional interactions with women, decline to mentor them, and so on. Do you worry about that?

CHIRA It’s very important to maintain a sense of proportion. We need to hold harassers accountable — that was delayed for far, far too long. But we have to make sure that men are included in this conversation, and that we distinguish between hardened predators and lesser offenses.

I don’t want to be misinterpreted as condoning harassment in any way, shape or form. In fact, as the #MeToo movement has gained strength, and more men have suffered consequences for their actions, I fear that men may be using #MeToo as an excuse not to help women.

BENNETT: What do you see as the “new rules” of leadership?

CHIRA To me, it means that you judge leaders not only on the crucial qualities of strategic vision, adeptness at managing people, and execution, but also by how well they can foster a diverse and generally motivated and satisfied work force. Great leaders recognize other ways of leading than the ways they saw men lead.

They see potential in people who don’t fit the traditional mold and they actively question what they need to do to create such a work force. That would include identifying promising diverse employees early on and intentionally putting opportunities in their way, monitoring meetings to make sure everyone in the group gets to be heard, or that some are not talking over, interrupting or claiming others’ ideas as their own.

It means taking chances on women just as we take chances on men. And it means recognizing that there are many styles of effective leadership — not just the models that men have established.

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