Op-Ed

Judith Miller: Sexism hindered, and helped, me

Judith Miller: I got my job as a reporter at the New York Times in 1977 partly because I was a woman

I got my job as a reporter at the New York Times in 1977 partly because I was a woman. Some said that I lost my job at the paper almost 30 years later for the same reason, but, while I was certainly affected by sexism, my departure was another story entirely.

The Times was indisputably sexist in the early 1970s, leading seven female employees to file what became a class-action suit alleging sex discrimination on behalf of some 550 women at the paper. Their case was rock solid. There were no women on the masthead, no female vice presidents, columnists, photographers or national correspondents. Of the 425 reporters, only 40 were women, and most of them worked in the Style section. In Washington, only three of the 35 reporters were women. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women were paid less than their male counterparts for the same work: roughly $3,000 a year less.

I landed a job in the Washington bureau partly thanks to that civil suit and the paper's frantic quest to hire qualified women.

As I gained more reporting experience, I discovered that being a woman had other advantages.

In the Arab Middle East in 1983, when I became the first woman to head the Cairo bureau, militant Islamists didn't kidnap, much less kill, female reporters. And Arab officials, almost all of them Western educated, were eager to show how enlightened they were by giving female journalists interviews.

Unlike male colleagues, I could talk to women about sensitive topics in the privacy of their homes. I wrote often about the discrimination Arab women faced, especially as repressive autocracies tried to undercut the growing appeal of religious extremists and placate fundamentalists by sacrificing hard-won women's rights.

Even in the male-dominated Arab world, however, experience and persistence often trumped gender. King Hussein of Jordan was willing to talk to me not because I was a woman but because I represented one of the nation's most influential papers and I had interviewed him when I was just starting my career.

Although I covered more than my share of wars and continued to cover U.S. soldiers in Iraq until their departure in 2011, I was never a war correspondent. That too had little to do with my being a woman. Some women, like my courageous friend Marie Colvin, who was killed by a mortar in Syria in 2012, fed on the adrenaline of battle and excelled at describing the impact of war on civilians. I did not.

But my promotion to Washington bureau news editor and deputy bureau chief in 1986 — another first for a woman — was undoubtedly affected by the young publisher's desire to end the paper's discrimination against women, minorities and gays.

And my failure in that job was also affected by gender. Some veteran reporters resented taking assignments from a woman who had been a junior reporter only a few years earlier and was perceived to have benefited from affirmative action.

Female reporters were then, and are still now, scrutinized and written about in ways that men rarely are. Early on at the paper, I was subjected to vicious accusations of improper relationships with sources by such gossip sheets as Spy magazine. Language should matter, especially to journalists. But too often, a decisive man is described as "assertive"; a female with sharp elbows is "pushy."

Ultimately, I was forced out of the Times not because of gender but because of professional disagreements with my publisher and his senior news team.

In 2004, the paper issued an "editor's note" apologizing for what it claimed was the paper's insufficient skepticism about pre-Iraq war intelligence. As one of several Times reporters who wrote about the Bush administration's case for war, I thought the note was cowardly and wrong: No one had tried to hurry scoops into the paper.

In 2005, I spent 85 days in jail because I refused to testify before a grand jury investigating a leak. I wanted to protect the 1st Amendment and my sources, including the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who signed a waiver that eventually allowed me to discuss our conversations.

Soon after I emerged from jail, when I expected support, the executive editor, Bill Keller, implied that I had misled senior editors and had an improper relationship with Libby — a man I had met three times in my life.

Obviously it was time to go. But shortly before I left, I did something I had never done before: I made demands. I demanded that the executive editor retract his suggestions. I also demanded greater compensation. And I got my way.

As my lawyers pressed my case, I realized that while I had spent years rushing into dangerous terrain in pursuit of news, I could not recall ever having mustered the courage to ask my bosses for a raise. Of course, I should have. Perhaps other women did. But did they push as hard as men for the promotions and prizes that result in higher salaries?

The continuing disparity between working men and women suggests not. Women still earn less than men for comparable work, at least 16% and as much as 23% less, according to the Pew Research Center.

A more insidious and troubling reason for the continuing gender gap is the lack of solidarity among women. Some of the most infuriating false complaints about me came from women. Having survived and risen by mastering the cutthroat, zero-sum culture of many large companies, women have been unwitting enablers of continuing discrimination. Too often, we have run for cover and failed to defend our own.

Judith Miller is a journalist and adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a commentator at Fox News. Her new book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey," was published April 7.

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