As It Happens

Former editor Catherine Mayer sues Time magazine for sex and age discrimination

A veteran journalist talks about her new book about women in the workforce — and her discrimination lawsuit against Time Inc.
A former editor at Time magazine explains why she's taking the media company to court, alleging that sexism and ageism pushed her out of her job. (Leo Cackett)

Story transcript

Catherine Mayer is taking on the giant that was once her employer.

The veteran British journalist claims global media corporation Time Inc. pushed her out of her job because she's a woman.

She has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court claiming sexism and ageism at the media company, where she worked as Time magazine's Europe editor.

In a statement to The Cut, Time said that "the allegations are untrue and wholly without merit." 

Mayer is the co-founder of the U.K. Women's Equality Party, and has written about her experiences and what she calls "the truth about global inequality" for women in her latest book, Attack of the Fifty Ft. Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! 

Mayer joined As It Happens host Carol Off for a feature interview about the lawsuit and her new book, which hits shelves in North America this week. Here is part of their conversation:

When you first started as a journalist in the early part of your career, what did you anticipate? What did you think it was going to be like being a woman in a newsroom?

I should take you back even slightly before then. In spite of the accent you hear, which I'm sure will sound English to you, I'm actually American born and had been brought up in an American family and with that belief in the American dream to the extent that you believe anyone can be president.

The title of Mayer's book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women, is based off the 1958 fantasy movie where a giant woman goes on a murderous rampage. (Catherine Mayer )

I also grew up in a feminist household and I grew up assuming that gender equality was almost there. You know, the legacy of the second wave of feminism means that it was tantalizingly close. So it wasn't until really after I left university and then starting at work as a journalist that I discovered that I was not the equal citizen that I thought myself to be.

And a considerable amount of sexism in a newsroom and newsroom culture. And so how did you deal with that?

I was blindsided by it. I mean, that's the funny thing. In a way I think I was protected by my naivete for a while because, you know, even applying for that job was an extraordinarily naive thing to do.

I didn't realize until later and I discovered that people had objected to my appointment, but I also discovered that the man who gave me that first job had decided that he fancied me or was in love with me or whatever else, and I found that out because he put a letter to that effect in my handbag. I then had to spend a weekend thinking about how to deal with this, and I marched in on the Monday morning and I said we're never going to speak about this again.

But at that stage there weren't the kind of structures or rules within the organization, that I thought there was anyone I could talk to about the problem — both about the sexism ... but also the fairly endemic sexual harassment. Not just from colleagues but, of course, you would go to interview people and very often find yourself being propositioned or just sort of wildly inappropriate things said, and no real recourse to deal with that.   

If someone told you [in the '80s] that you would still be having these conversations and there would still be many of the same problems in 2017 ... would have you laughed?

Yes, I would. I really thought that it was just one more push and we were there. And then what happens is because you do manage to navigate the system, you think that because you are surviving in spite of these difficulties, that that must be what's happening with other people.

And it takes a while to look around and notice that other people are not faring so well and to start understanding what the mechanisms are that are not only impacting you, but impacting other people in far worse and serious ways.   

I just want to ask you about your lawsuit. Because this alleges that Time Inc., your former employer, let you go because of what you've described in the suit as Time's "fraud, retaliation and culture of male cronyism."  What was it like for you? 

I joined Time in 2004 as a senior editor and I was very quickly promoted to London bureau chief and from there Europe editor. And that's sort of the point at which is started to go wrong. I'm not suggesting that there weren't issues before then, because there is kind of endemic sexism in that organization, and I think, by the way, in all news organizations. 

But then what happened when I was promoted to Europe editor, there was the decision to recast the role to keep my writing abilities rather than, as people had performed the role before, as primarily a commissioning and editing position. And so there was the idea that there would be additional staff in London to make that happen. That then got boiled down to one man sent in as my deputy — and that man eventually ousted to me.

There is always this instinct not to speak out. There's always this instinct to try and make things work without causing a fuss.- Catherine Mayer, author

I wasn't intending to go public with the suit. It's just that because it is a lawsuit in the federal court, it is publicly viewable and a news service there picked it up and then at that point I did talk to the Observer newspaper here and then other people have been interested.

And some of the people are just getting in touch to say, "This is happening to us. That, in some way, helped us to understand this process that we are subject to." 

A former editor alleges a culture of sexism at Time magazine. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

What process are they referring to?

Somebody used the phrase, "When I read your complaint, I thought I was reading my own story."

These are women who work in media?

In media, but also, interestingly, people have come forward offering to be witnesses to what happened to me and to similar patterns of behaviour by the person who came over as my deputy.

There is always this instinct not to speak out. There's always this instinct to try and make things work without causing a fuss. And I absolutely admit I probably wouldn't have gone public with this if I had had a choice. But in going public, it seems to have enabled a conversation that was very important as well as potentially bringing new witnesses for my own case.

How difficult, though, is it going to be for you to actually prove that these things happened to you? 

Well, that's why the repeating pattern of behaviour is certainly interesting. But where I will agree with Time on this in a way is that I'm very happy to defend this in court rather than trying to argue it with you because we have very, very large amounts of evidence to that effect and witness statements to that effect.

I don't think anybody would dispute that I was very badly treated, but your question is whether it's a result of sex and age discrimination, and there is a great deal of evidence to that effect. 

Mayer is the co-founder of the U.K. Women's Equality Party. (Catherine Mayer )

I want to ask you about the book. Well, it's not about the lawsuit; it's about what you have observed as a woman now getting into politics. It covers a wide range of issues in the U.K. and United States and Canada and around the world for women in the work force. And you say in this book that you think women need a new manifesto. What are you talking about there?

I think we were all brought up with this notion of progress as being linear and unstoppable. And to a greater or lesser extent we were sold a pup.

Because what we can now see quite clearly — and I don't like to thank Donald Trump for anything but we can thank him for this one thing — that it is very obvious that progress can indeed be rolled back very fast, and is stalling in other ways and other places. And the ways in which we confront that are often deficient because the political means for confronting it are themselves deficient.   

What I have come to understand is that we need to see what the mechanisms are that are holding us back to understand that in so doing they are damaging absolutely everybody. There are very powerful arguments of self-interest to be made not just for women but, in fact, for men too about why we need to fix this and fix it properly.

You've chosen the title Attack of the Fifty Ft. Women, which is based on the 1958 fantasy science fiction movie. Why did you make that connection? 

That particular movie is a very funny one because when it came out in 1958, where it's in that case Attack of the Fifty Ft. Woman singular. It was an expression of fear about what an empowered woman might do. And in this case, the woman has a close encounter with a space alien and grows to 50 foot tall and immediately goes on the rampage and kills people.

There is then a 1993 version of the movie that has instead become a parable of the benefits of female empowerment. It stars Daryl Hannah and when she grows to 50 foot, sort of starts smashing the patriarchy and making things better. It's still a terrible movie, by the way, but a wonderful poster, which has been adapted for the cover of the book.

Do you still anticipate that there will be a time when you and I will not be having this conversation?

I do. I really do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Catherine Mayer: