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American Journalism Review
A Bureau's ``Woman Problem''  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   December 1997

A Bureau's ``Woman Problem''   

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     



OVERSHADOWED BY THE TURMOIL inspired by recent changes at the Los Angeles Times is a plea by the women in the paper's Washington bureau to change its white male-dominated ways. According to a recent memo, the bureau has a ``woman problem.''

``The memo reflects a long-standing situation that has festered over a great many years,'' says Melissa Healy, one of its authors. Only 12 of 42 editorial staffers are female. Only one of six editors is a woman. The two top positions are held by men.

``Women are a distinct and embarrassingly small minority--and often feel we are treated accordingly,'' said the memo, sent to management in October and signed by Healy, Geraldine Baum, Marlene Cimons, Nina Easton, Faye Fiore, Janet Hook, Vicki Kemper, Alissa Rubin, D.J. Salem, Elizabeth Shogren, Jodi Wilgoren and Robin Wright.

No one seems to dispute that for a prominent Washington bureau in 1997, the statistics are disappointing. ``The numbers are a problem...,'' says Bureau Chief Doyle McManus. ``It clearly has not been intentional. And it's our intention to do better.''

In the past year, four women on the editorial staff have opted to leave. ``In departing, some cited specific instances of poor treatment in which they believed gender played a role,'' the memo says. ``Others cited a broader climate in which they believed their gender proved a disadvantage. Irrespective of how important it was in their decision to leave, all left believing the bureau has a `woman problem.' ''

The case of Sara Fritz, who left the bureau in July to become managing editor of Congressional Quarterly, is cited as an example of what's wrong. After turning down a job at the New York Times in 1994, Fritz was handed the plum job of heading a Washington-based investigative team. It turned out that she was in charge in name only. ``I wanted a management position at the Times, and they clearly thought I was totally incapable of management,'' she says. ``I want you to know I am doing very well here.''

The memo says tension has eased since Jack Nelson turned over the reins to McManus in January 1996. ``I have to plead guilty since I was the bureau chief for 22 years,'' says Nelson, now the paper's chief Washington correspondent. He cites an ongoing dispute over whether to hire the best qualified person or the best qualified woman or minority. Nelson says he often wanted to hire the best qualified minority. But, he adds, ``the answer always was, `You have to hire the best qualified, and if it's a minority, all the better.' But I still have to bear some responsibility.''

Some men in the bureau say there may not be a gender problem so much as a situation in which some people get special deals, regardless of gender. Several women work almost exclusively from home. When her husband got a job in Hartford, Fritz was allowed to work out of the Connecticut city.

Regardless, it's clear the memo has gotten Times' management's attention. A group including all of the women and six men in the bureau is working to improve the climate. A heated debate is in progress over whether to bring in an outsider to ``sensitize'' people to the existence of a gender problem.

``The idea is that where things are broken, they should be fixed,'' McManus says. ``It's up to all of us to fix them. The whole bureau.''

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