When Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez was suspended after tweeting a link to an article (not written by her) about the 2003 rape allegations against Kobe Bryant just after news broke of his death, the Post’s managing editor Tracy Grant released a statement saying “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” However, current and former staffers at the Post say the suspension, as well as the paper’s refusal to pay for Sonmez’s hotel as a safety precaution following death threats, is an example of disparities between the way the paper treats its men and women employees.
After her tweet, Sonmez was doxxed and received multiple death and rape threats. According to a report by HuffPost, when Sonmez alerted her editors to these threats, they suggested she move to a hotel at her own expense and suspended her. Yet when national security reporter Shane Harris was victim to similar harassment last year, editors paid for an armed security guard to stand outside his home for 72 hours.
And online threats aren’t the only area where employees report discrepancies in the way men and women are treated at the paper. A report published last year by the organization’s employee union found that the median salary for men at the paper is $116,065 a year, while for women it’s $95,595. Furthermore, the median pay for women of color is $30,000 a year less than that of white men. One contractor for the Washington Post told HuffPo that when she asked to be paid similarly to men doing the same job, foreign editor Doug Jehl “raised his voice” at their breakfast meeting before telling her that her contract would not be renewed in the future.
In response to the union’s pay discrepancy findings, the Washington Post responded that pay was based on “position, years of experience, and performance.” However, they neglected to acknowledge that the highest, and highest paid, positions at the news outlet are pretty much all held by men. Three out of four of the Washington Post’s top editors are men, and just four of 17 heads of department are women. “You just wonder how that’s impacting things. I think that whether they realize it or not, that sends a message,” one woman staffer told HuffPost.
The power imbalances also inadvertently send the message that no matter how high women might rise at the paper, they’ll still be responsible for keeping the office refrigerator tidy. Tracy Grant, the second woman managing editor in the a Post’s history, frequently sends out “housekeeping” type emails to staff, suggesting that her role includes day-to-day organizational responsibilities that male editors don’t have to deal with:
“Yet two female staffers expressed dismay that Grant sends out office-wide emails that seem like tasks she should have delegated to an assistant. Over the past few months, Grant has sent out notes about issues around streaming the impeachment, an event involving snacks and HR benefit info, and cleaning out the office fridge. “Anything left there will be handled by one disgruntled managing editor,” she wrote in that email, obtained by HuffPost. These staffers said the other three top editors, all men, don’t write these kinds of emails.”
The Washington Post has long been associated with a kind of male journalist machismo in the style of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the sort of “ballsy” journalism too often thought by a rapidly aging boys’ club to require actual testicles. But woman employees say that while some of the old swagger has been tamped, the deep-rooted sexism remains:
“‘There’s a dweeby beta-male quotient at the Post. They’re not openly macho,’ a female staffer said. There’s an understated respectability that is secretly pernicious and sexist operating in that place.’”
And though Sonmez was reinstated, with her hotel paid for, after her colleagues rallied around her, the powers to be at the Washington Post still refuse to admit there’s any sort of problem.