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.