Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stiffer laws and fingerpointing: how strategies that helped people of color can help working women

When I  first starting working as a journalist, we had few, if any, minority reporters at the newspaper. We had none whatsoever in our rural Central New York bureaus, where our readers were mostly white.
Yet, here we were condemning others for not having people of color on their payrolls.
Newspapers across the country praised new government incentives. We reported on the lawsuits. We exposed the inequities. We wrote editorials about unfair and racist policies. We pointed fingers and demanded fair pay and equitable hiring practices.
Then the world woke up and started pointing fingers at us.
Who were we, with our lily white newsrooms to condemn them?
Things changed.
Our bureaus suddenly became more colorful.
At the time, I was routinely working 14-hour days with little or no overtime pay. I sometimes worked six- or seven-day weeks. I thought nothing of it. The culture was encouraged by the newspaper as a whole -- by everyone from the publisher to my editor to fellow reporters.
That was how we got ahead.
We did the work of two people for the pay of one. We made ourselves invaluable and if we did that well enough, we might just get moved to the city desk. When women decided to have kids, they either quit, took copy editing jobs or resigned themselves to rarely seeing their children.
Those who tried to reign in their hours were written off by the rest of us.
They were no longer "real" journalists.
Men who wanted more time with their families got the same treatment.
So imagine my surprise when one day, a young, black woman -- a recent college grad -- who worked in my bureau, refused to work overtime. I heard her on the phone taking a stern tone with an editor. She told him she had a life and she had plans.
She wasn't about to work for anyone free of charge.
I was sure she wouldn't last.
But she did.
When she left, it was on her own terms.
I was a journalist.
I couldn't resist.
I asked her how she got away with it.
It was simple, she said. Newspapers needed journalists of color. They were desperate, but people of color had never before been encouraged to study journalism. It was a matter of supply verses demand. Newspapers were low on supply, so she could demand.
Some called her treatment unfair, preferential because of her minority status.
But I saw what was unfolding and I watched with amazement.
Newspapers didn't want to be accused of giving people of color unfair advantages any more than they wanted to be accused of denying them. And this wasn't really even an advantage. What newspapers had been doing was illegal and these new employees of color had the power to expose those practices and, more important, to take better jobs elsewhere.
So when this reporter and others like her starting refusing to work unpaid hours, our bosses had to comply with the law on behalf of all employees. The newsroom culture started changing. I was no longer afraid to request overtime and I often (not always) got what I asked for.
I never again worked an extra day without pay or other compensation.
So when I heard our President talk about creating equity in the workplace for women Tuesday night by making it easier for them to juggle family and work with child care incentives and better health care, I shook my head. Those are good things, but they are not enough.
They still give employers no reason to offer equal pay and equal opportunities.
What helps is empowerment and empowerment comes in the form of enforceable laws, constant monitoring and public pressure. Someone has to point the finger. Someone has to threaten exposure and lawsuits when that finger is pointed. The lawsuits and the exposure must hurt.
That works.
There is no need to devalue of women (like me) who choose to stay home with their families, but women who make the opposite choice must be valued as highly as their male colleagues. It's only logical. It's only fair. It shouldn't be an issue.
But we are battling fierce cultural norms.
And, sadly, just as we needed government quotas, incentives and more enforceable laws to initiate equity for people of color, we need that same kind of pressure for working women. Women will not be the only benefactors.
Laws that helped people of color helped me, a white woman  from the Adirondacks.
Laws that help women will help men. They will help families. They will help single people. They will help stay-at-home moms and dads. They will help employers, who will have more loyal and stable workforces. They will make the United States a better, more stable, more desirable place to live.
Laws -- not binders, not tax breaks -- will inspire change.


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