Issue 4: Moving Beyond “The One”

gloria steinem dorothy pitman hughes

Dear Reader,

I owe my broadcasting career to the meddling federal government.

When I started looking for work, I ran into the neophyte’s dilemma: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. This is historically worse for women and other underrepresented groups because the Old White Boys Network keeps hiring people with whom they’re most comfortable, meaning, more pale males.

In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission began requiring “affirmative action hiring practices” for broadcast companies. The FCC mandated broadcasters’ staffs should fairly represent the communities they served.  If the city didn’t have a 100% white male population, the staff couldn’t be exclusively white and male. And no fair putting women and minorities in all the menial jobs – stations had to include them at every level of hiring.

Broadcasters were forced to make a documentable effort to comply with the new employment policies. They had to seek out women and people of color. And they had to help them become qualified if no qualified people were available. The old “We’d hire one if we could find one who was qualified” excuse no longer worked. That’s how local news became lousy with weather girls and anchor teams that looked like most men’s second marriages.

When I got my first on-air job in television, the station was specifically looking for a woman because they had to have one. (They already had their black male.) As more women were being hired in television and radio, more women got opportunities in print, too. This was partly because of lawsuits demanding an end to discrimination.

Media outlets were becoming more diverse, but the pace was glacial because managers often stopped when they found The One. In the 1980s, aspiring op-ed writers were told “Sorry, honey, we already have one.” (That “one” was either Anna Quindlen or Ellen Goodman, pioneering syndicated columnists.) While opinion pages are still largely white male real estate, Katie Orenstein’s working to change that. Her revolutionary creation, The Op-Ed Project, is a kind of newfangled non-government affirmative action program for aspiring thought leaders from underrepresented demographics. The Op-Ed Project teaches people to turn their expertise into op-ed columns.

Katie will be one of the featured speakers at BinderCon, the “Out of the Binders” conference designed to educate, empower, and inspire women writers. Mitt Romney spoke of “binders full of women,” and BinderCon is designed to get women out of the figurative binders and onto payrolls, credit rolls, mastheads. There’s no good excuse for not hiring women writers. The Harnisch Foundation is proud to be a presenting sponsor of BinderCon in Los Angeles. There’s still time to register!

Affirmative action was necessary because companies weren’t going to diversify their workforces without the enduring threat of punishment. Yet today we must still apply pressure to get employers to seek out diverse hires, to get financiers to support women and minority enterprises, to get gender and racial parity in media, to have our elected officials reflect the diversity of the population they represent.

Yes, it’s going to be unfair and uncomfortable for the people who have to move over and make way for the people who never had a chance before now. Sorry not sorry, as the kids say. It’s way past time for parity to be the law of the land. That’s affirmative.


Ruth Ann