SEXIST LANGUAGE

A recent piece on Morning Edition told the story of a smart, powerful woman who rose to the top ranks of Lehman Brothers, only to be demoted six months later when the investment firm posted a $2.8 billion quarterly loss.

After a newsy introduction read by host Steve Inskeep, the June 13 piece began this way:

"Blonde, beautiful and outspoken, the spotlight loved Erin Callan. Fortune magazine called her one of four women to watch," said NPR business reporter Yuki Noguchi. "Callan cut a striking figure in her crochet-style dress, gold dangling earrings and high-heeled boots."

Until mid-June, Callan was the chief financial officer for Lehman Brothers, the first woman ever to serve on the firm's 15-member executive committee. Some listeners bristled at NPR drawing attention to the way a woman dresses in what was a business story about another Wall Street executive losing a job after a huge loss was revealed.

"Did Noguchi also describe Joseph Gregory's (the chief operating officer of Lehman Brothers) clothing and physique? Is Noguchi a fashion reporter or a finance one?" asked Yael Levitte, a senior research associate at Cornell University. "How does she expect to be treated seriously as a woman reporter, if that's her coverage of this story? Would Noguchi like to be described that way if she was ever profiled professionally? Don't reinforce the glass ceiling, Yuki Noguchi, try and break it!"

Noguchi recently left the Washington Post to join NPR as a business reporter.

"I thought about this issue," said Noguchi. "I think I would feel differently if I picked that out of the blue. She made the way she dressed part of her persona. I don't think I would have made that my lead if it were Zoe Cruz, who was the president of Morgan Stanley. Fashion didn't come into play. But Callan liked to talk about fashion and where she bought her outfit."

Noguchi emphasized in her piece that Callan is smart, savvy and as equally comfortable talking about fashion as she is about numbers. In fairness, while the piece began with the description of Callan's appearance, most of it focused on her financial acumen and the difficult position Lehman Brothers had put her in as the company's public face on TV and in dealings with investors and hedge fund managers.

"I can understand why listeners would seize on that," said Noguchi. "But the fact of the matter is she was this cover-girl type, and to neglect it, is to not discuss how she presented herself."

Noguchi's description was similar to a piece on Callan in the April issue of Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine headlined: "Wall Street's Most Powerful Woman." Author Sheelah Kolhatkar also mentioned Callan's wardrobe but only after the first 1,000 words explored the glass ceiling for women on Wall Street. Then, she talked about the "short crocheted dress with a black belt slung low around her hips, gold hoop earrings, and knee-high caramel-colored high-heel boots."

Noguchi interviewed Kolhatkar for her piece and chose to use tape of Kolhatkar describing Callan as "exotic" but also how few women there are at her level on Wall Street. What Kolhatkar found remarkable was that Callan is a lawyer who rose up through Lehman doing deals with hedge fund managers and didn't have an accounting background, which was not typical for a CFO.

Kolhatkar agreed with NPR listeners who complained that high-profile men and women are often treated differently and it can negatively affect how women are viewed. She said that was one reason she didn't focus on Callan's dress until deep into her magazine piece.

"It's true women in the public eye are often scrutinized in terms of their look and dress," Kolhatkar told me. "At the same time, there are so few women at that level in the business world that the few there do really stand out. In this particular case, her appearance was one of the things that was quite remarkable about her."

As a woman with three decades in the work force, I understand the concern about even mentioning how a female executive dresses. But as a journalist, I must emphasize that it would be leaving out an important truth about Callan not to acknowledge the stylish way she presented herself — especially in contrast to the button-down, conservative pinstriped world she inhabits.

But the lead of any story generally sets the tone and direction of a piece. Often reporters lead with the most important item as a way to draw listeners in. By opening with a brief news summary followed by a vivid description of Callan's appearance, Noguchi wound up distracting listeners from the meat of an important business story and inviting criticisms of sexism even though that was not her intention.

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Comments

 

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I thought the most remarkable feature of the story was that Erin Callan was a CFO with no financial background and that the story would have been better served it that fact had been in the lead, not the fashion comment.

Sent by JS Long | 9:51 PM | 6-23-2008

Whoa! Thanks to a dangling modifier, Inskeep referred to *the spotlight*, not to any person, male or female!

Read his statement carefully: "Blonde, beautiful and outspoken, the spotlight..." See, the spotlight is blonde!

So, sexist? Maybe. Sloppily edited? Definitely!

Sent by Richard A. Danca | 5:03 PM | 6-24-2008

Neal Conan was rude to the author of the book "This Land Is Their Land" on his show. He shook her like a rag-doll insisting that mortgagee's were more responsible than lenders for bad loans.

I would remind him that there are often, as in my case, the broker, banker, a lawyer, and my partner in getting the loan, across the table, insisting that one is CRAZY for not getting a variable rate on the loan. They all told me that I was making a decision out of fear if I locked in a higher rate for the life of the loan, and they would have been right if the mortgage crisis had not hit.

Sent by Bud Baker | 7:54 AM | 6-25-2008

What is "stylish?"

What is the purpose of the report? The demotion of a CFO gets attention because the employee was a woman? That sounds a little sexist.

Regardless, what news is being conveyed; did it take three minutes to convey that news, or was the three minutes to convey something other than news? You spend 3 three minutes and do not actually talk about economics and finance; it is personality from the investors perspective. There is no context given for events; that is not sexist since it is rather typical of NPR's financial reporting. The sky fell down, but our expert say its okay, so we will now go to sports.

The report seems like a nonevent. It is fluff. You could have reported the firing in a few seconds and used the three minutes for the things you all tend to not have time for; (see your last post)? The juxtaposition is baffling.

I wonder why the press says pants suit. When I say suit, do you think of a skirt?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 9:52 AM | 6-25-2008

"By opening with a brief news summary followed by a vivid description of Callan's appearance, Noguchi wound up distracting listeners from the meat of an important business story and inviting criticisms of sexism even though that was not her intention."

Each word that appears is intended, deliberately employed, or it could not appear. It was the intention that erred.

Harold A. Maio

Sent by Harold A. Maio | 1:14 PM | 6-28-2008

I would agree that sexism was not Noguchi's intention; it is important, however, to examine our unintentional and tacit assumptions -- the language we use, the points that we consider to be salient.

The fact is, men are NOT described in terms of their appearance, but according to their accomplishments. Women may be evaluated for accomplishment, but so often it is the appearance, the "fashion style" of a woman which takes precedence. Why?

Pay attention. It becomes glaringly obvious once one stops accepting it and begins to question.

Sent by Cynthia Burton | 6:33 AM | 7-1-2008

I agree with Burton.

Sent by andrew hennessy | 7:09 PM | 7-1-2008

The idea that women identify themselves through fashion and men do not is a stereotype that is no longer valid, not because women have grown beyond fashion, but because men are equally as involved. As many powerful men would talk at length about their suit, tie, or cuff links and how they got them if that was the reporters focus. Chances are good that every man in the industry spends as much time on appearance, so the direction of the interview was clearly a choice made by Noguchi. When a males attention to appearance is discussed, the tone is very negative as was the case with Jonathan Edward's hair.

Sent by E. K. Lee | 10:55 AM | 7-4-2008

I think Erin Callan took pride in her appearance, and it showed. I agree with the ending comment of the piece, that though the detail added to the story, putting it as the lead was distracting from the main point.

Sent by Krystal | 7:55 PM | 7-28-2008

I will say upfront I am a male so I don't fully understand the female's perspective on this matter.

I don't believe Yuki Noguchi had any unfavorable intent or sexist inclination. Women more than men spend more money on clothes, makeup, scents, beauty care, and their appearance. Some women use their appearance as a form of power or persuasion, that's nothing new. So do some men, as in expensive suits, power ties, cars, etc.

I think Yuki Noguchi's fault is that he could have presented his story to avoid the appearance of sexism.

I agree with a previous poster. The crux of the story should have been about a lawyer given what is essentially a finance job - putting a square peg in a round hole - and her profile.

Sent by aTypicalProgressive | 11:40 AM | 8-6-2008

Grow up. She's flaunting what her mama gave her--and I'm sure it didn't hamper her efforts in reaching for the top. If she dresses in a sexy way, then naturally the language used to render that image should reflect same. Get off your high-horse.

Sent by Tom Quimby | 7:13 PM | 8-26-2008

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