Fixing What They Can’t See

The emails arrived just as the air crew began the safety briefing. I scanned the messages, switched off my phone and wept throughout the 90-minute flight from London to Geneva.

These were tears neither of grief nor joy, but of something harder to define. Throughout my last, grim years at TIME and since my involuntary April 2015 exit, I have coped by suppressing my emotions: the pain and stress of working in a poisoned environment and, latterly, the terror of taking on a giant media corporation. I had also braced against reactions to my lawsuit against TIME for sex and age discrimination. Complaints to the Federal Court are publicly viewable. I suspected that breaking news of my legal action would inflict further damage on my reputation, and I was right.

Time Inc. issued a statement: “The allegations are untrue and wholly without merit.” Now two emails gave the lie to this depiction of me as a liar.

The first offered support in my suit. The author had studied my complaint and “felt like I was reading about my own experience.” The second email was from my lawyers. A source within Newsweek had called to tell them of a message sent that day to staff by its Global Editor in Chief, Matt McAllester. A key figure in my complaint, McAllester—10 years my junior and burnished, in TIME’s view, by a much-vaunted career as a war reporter—had arrived in TIME’s London office as a senior editor who reported to me. Briefed to assist me as Europe Editor, he instead undermined and ultimately replaced me in the role, aided rather than checked by management in New York, whom he deftly courted. He moved to Newsweek months after my final ouster and earlier this year clambered into its top job, perhaps to the surprise of its then incumbent, Jim Impoco.

Now, McAllester’s determined rise may have halted. His message to Newsweek staff was brief: “I need to take some time off for personal reasons.” The source suggested his leave would be permanent and had been triggered by my case. It emerged last week in a leaked internal memo that he is no longer employed by Newsweek after being replaced by executive editor Bob Roe.

By the time I arrived in Geneva, there had been many more calls, including offers of testimony from people who had experienced McAllester’s tenure at Newsweek or the discriminatory culture at TIME. These offers continue to arrive, along with more general declarations of support and letters that move me to tears, no matter how hard I try to remain dry-eyed. These are from other women, in journalism and unrelated fields, who in reading my story recognize their own plight and feel emboldened to fight back.

There are many reasons women put up and shut up rather than calling out workplace discrimination. We train ourselves to ignore the smaller irritants, the sexist comments, the ill-conceived jokes, the minor incursions into our private space. We know that if we object, we are at least as likely as the targets of our complaints to find ourselves marked down by managers as weak or disruptive. To take public action, as I have done, is to hang a sign around your neck emblazoned with a single word: “troublemaker.” That’s hardly likely to help my ongoing job search—which, at 56, is already complicated by ageism and the turbulence in journalism.

TIME claimed that this turbulence, rather than discrimination, underpinned their decision to get rid of me. TIME’s first-ever female Managing Editor, Nancy Gibbs, then not-yet-publicly confirmed in the post, stripped me of my duties as Europe Editor in an email sent to all of my colleagues in editorial before I was told of the move. She also ignored my vigorous objections that my proposed new title, Editor at Large, did not represent a promotion—a point illustrated further down the line when she attempted to make McAllester, by now Europe Editor, my line manager. TIME may be tempted to argue that her decisions could not be sexist or ageist—after all, Gibbs is a woman of about my own age. Yet this is the point about systemic sexism and agism: It co-opts people who should oppose it. Much of what Gibbs thought knew about me she learned from McAllester and those he had briefed. It perpetuates itself by hiding behind our habitual silence and, when that fails, by attempting to force gagging agreements on departing employees.

My sacking was dressed up as a redundancy; it could not be otherwise, because my performance reviews were excellent. TIME insisted it no longer needed my skills and experience even as it attempted to find ways to backfill the hole I left. I have no doubt at all that I fell victim to a cocktail of backstabbing and bias—unconscious and otherwise. Such experiences are multiplying across the industry. As media organizations struggle to adapt to diminishing revenue streams in the digital era, they keep trying to do more with fewer and younger staff. Newsrooms both sides of the Atlantic have never come close to reflecting the diversity of the populations they serve or addressing internal inequities such as pay and promotion gaps. Now such progress as they have made is endangered.

“In many legacy news organizations,” wrote Mizell Stewart III, president of the American Society of News Editors and vice president/news operations of Gannett and the USA TODAY Network, in an April 2017 blog, “moving the needle on staff diversity took a back seat to the survival of the enterprise.”

This matters—and not just to those of us on the sharp end of the trends. The crisis in journalism is intimately interconnected with the wider crisis in democracy. Media for a long time missed and then misinterpreted the factors propelling Donald Trump to power and in the UK misread the sentiment on Brexit and the elections that followed. If editors and reporters fail to connect with the wider public, that’s hardly surprising. They are overwhelmingly drawn from the same monochrome male elites that populate traditional politics. They are by no means all conservatives, but even those who consider themselves progressives often stand in the way of the progress they advocate. This is a phenomenon I have witnessed up close and personal since co-founding the UK’s Women’s Equality Party two years ago.

Just as male editors routinely consign stories about gender equality to lifestyle sections and programs because they do not recognize how these issues relate to them, male politicians of the left tend to overlook misogyny in their own ranks, blinded by their own sense of virtue. You cannot fix what you do not see. As a political activist and in my latest book, Attack of the 50 Ft Women, I work to make visible the mechanisms that in holding women back damage everyone.

I did not want to sue TIME. I face a lengthy, costly legal process and an uncertain future. Yet in one respect, I have already won—and that is also why I cried aboard the flight to Geneva. My case is helping other women to see and to fight back against discrimination. For that reason, whatever the outcome, I regret nothing.

This piece also appears at The Pool.




Catherine Mayer is the author of three books, including the forthcoming Attack of the Fifty Foot Women: From man-made mess to a better future – the truth about global inequality and how to unleash female potential. She spent more than three decades as a journalist before co-founding the Women’s Equality Party.