Will ‘Good Girls’ Continue Revolt Against Workplace Bias?

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By Patricio Chile

The short-lived Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt” highlights a landmark 1970 gender bias case against Newsweek. A woman who helped lead the real-life revolt says that decades later the struggle for workplace equality is far from over.

“We thought 40-some years ago that if you passed nondiscriminatory laws and hopefully enforced them, things would change,” Lynn Povich told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 19. “What we didn’t realize is how difficult it was to change attitudes because you can’t legislate attitude.”

The law on which the group relied is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislation was so new that the Newsweek case was the first gender bias class action brought under Title VII by professional women, Povich said. She was a plaintiff in the Newsweek case and wrote the book on which the series was based.

The “revolt” came after the women, fed up with being limited to research roles and barred from being reporters, secretly worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to bring the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their lawyer was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who went on to represent Washington, D.C., as its nonvoting member of the House.

Title VII bans employers from discriminating against workers “because of” their gender, race, religion, color or national origin. Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, borrowed language from the legislation for the title of her book, “Because of Sex.”

Cultural Bias Remains

The Newsweek case opened “countless doors for women at the workplace,” but recent cases show that cultural biases are still a problem in the workforce, Thomas told Bloomberg BNA in a recent interview.

For instance, the New York Times was hit with a lawsuit in April from two black female advertising executives who accused the newspaper and its chief executive officer of engaging in “deplorable discrimination.” Managers favor young, white male employees over older, minority female workers for promotions, the women allege.

Gender bias cases have also popped up outside the news industry. The city of Des Moines, Iowa, in November settled for $2 million a lawsuit by three female police officers who alleged they were unfairly passed over for promotions and punished for behavior commonly committed by male colleagues.

And the law firm Chadbourne & Parke faces a $100 million class action filed in federal court in New York by two women who claim they were paid less than male colleagues and retaliated against after bringing attention to discrimination complaints.

“There is only so much the law can change until you start bumping into culture and cultural resistance,” Thomas said. The “intransigence” of sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is a cultural problem that the law can only do so much about, she said.

Pay Gap Persists

Getting employers to recognize the implicit biases in the workplace can be a huge step in reducing issues like the gender pay gap, Thomas said.

The median weekly earnings of women have increased only 34 percent since the 1970s, while the median weekly earnings for men have increased 50 percent since that time, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women's median weekly earnings are currently 82.5 percent of what men earn.

The pay gap is worse for black and Hispanic women. The median earnings of black women, for example, are 84 percent of what white women earn, according to the bureau.

The White House recently issued an Equal Pay Pledge, which asks major employers to address the pay gap. It is the type of initiative that can help “employers to commit to looking within themselves and seeing whether equality is starting at home,” Thomas said.

Stay Tuned

The first season of “Good Girls Revolt” ends just as the EEOC files the complaint against Newsweek. The magazine settled soon after, but it took almost four years of further complaints before the women started seeing changes, Povich said. She became the magazine’s first female senior editor in 1975.

Povich said she is not sure why Amazon canceled the series, but Sony Pictures Television, the studio producing the series, is trying to sell it elsewhere.

“I wanted the story to be known,” Povich said. “A lot of young women certainly that I’ve heard from really love it and identify with it and are fascinated by it. They learned a lot of history they didn’t know.”

Ongoing workplace inequality litigation and an election season that put these issues in the limelight have also made the series, and its cancellation, seem timely.

“It’s so odd to have a show about women and equality being canceled at a time when we’re dealing with all these issues politically,” Povich said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patricio Chile in Washington at pchile@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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