I was apparently a child feminist. At age 10, I asked my mom, then dealing with three kids and a husband working long hours, “Is this all there is?” As a teenager, I inhaled books like Sisterhood is Powerfuland Our Bodies, Ourselves. I spent barely two months working at my college newspaper, the esteemed Michigan Daily, instead devoting my time to an alternative monthly called herself.
In my first journalism job, making a standard, unisex union salary, I accused a bank manager of refusing to give me a credit card because I was a woman (I was right and I got the card). In my second job, I wrote about how women had to pay higher car insurance rates than men even though statistically, they were better drivers. Years later, at the Associated Press, I was the first woman to get the coveted “AP political writer” byline.
You get the picture.
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So it was a real moment for me when Frances McDormand, accepting her Oscar for best actress, asked that all the female nominees stand. And it was even more of a thrill when she suggested a concrete way to help realize the goals of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements — the now famous “inclusion rider,” a contract provision requiring diversity in cast and crew.
But my next thought was OMG, what about my younger son? He’s white, male and trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. What would inclusion riders mean for him? Was “reverse discrimination” about to become personal for me?
I have always been dismissive of this concept and those who go to court to argue, let’s face it, to preserve their white privilege. Affirmative action — not quotas, but casting a wide net and considering history and context — has always made tremendous sense to me. Colleges weigh athletic and artistic talent, where people come from and whether they are children of alumni. Why would they not also consider race, a factor with a profound impact on people’s lives and opportunities?
“African-American students are legacy students in their own way. Too often, their legacy is struggle,” I wrote four years ago. Centuries of slavery and discrimination (in jobs, housing, education, criminal justice and more) have not been erased. Research and statistics provide dismaying evidence of the government’s pernicious role in all of this and the long-lasting effects of its policies.
Maybe I was admitted to Michigan because my mother went there, and maybe I didn’t get in anywhere else because I was white, or 100 other reasons. Maybe I lost out on jobs (lots of them!) because I was a woman, or because I was white, or maybe 100 other reasons. Who can know?
No doubt there are specific cases of someone male or white losing a job, promotion or college admittance to a woman or person of color who might not seem equally qualified. And God knows how many times this has happened, in reverse, to minorities and women in American history. I hope this is now rare in both directions and quickly disappears. There’s talent everywhere that went untapped for too long.
Women once were dramatically underrepresented in journalism and have yet to achieve parity. When I received my master’s degree in journalism, I sent résumés and article clips to 25 tiny newspapers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and did not hear back from a single one. In retrospect, I wonder whether sexism played a role. There was a reason, after all, that the classic book about covering the 1972 presidential campaign was called The Boys on the Bus.
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The irony is that both my sons have encountered this phenomenon in their own industries — and experienced it from the other side. The violinist was auditioning for jobs at a time when symphonies were still trying to recover from centuries of excluding women. Some were trying harder than others. I’ll never forget watching the Vienna Philharmonic on TV just a few years ago and realizing it was almost 100% male. U.S. orchestras started correcting the imbalance decades ago and have made great progress. And my son did manage to get a job.
Women’s empowerment has been a running theme through the other son’s scripts. When I mentioned my post-McDormand anxiety about his future, he said inclusiveness is embarrassingly overdue and will produce better writing. There has never been more room for everyone, he added, given the continuing surge in scripted programming.
Step 1 is always acknowledging a problem, and Hollywood’s women have made sure we are finally at that point in the entertainment industry. What happens next could depend on the actions of the biggest names. For instance, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings was quick to say he is not interested in inclusion riders. But the streaming service is reportedly in talks with Barack and Michelle Obama for a program deal. If they wanted an inclusion rider, would Netflix really say no?
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence