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NPR settles discrimination suit with ex-reporter Katie Davis

Originally published in Current, Jan. 15, 1996

NPR and a former reporter and host for its news division, Katie Davis, have settled a sex discrimination suit she filed in April [earlier story].

The agreement requires that neither party discuss the terms of settlement; Davis and her attorney Lynne Bernabei would only say they were happy with the outcome. Davis is not now working for NPR, she says, "but anything can happen.''

Just after it was filed, NPR said the suit was "wrong on the facts and entirely without merit'' and that it would ask the court for a dismissal.

Court records show the case had not gotten to the deposition stage, though Bernabei had asked the court to compel NPR to turn over documents related to employee salaries, financial records and other matters.

Davis, who worked at NPR for 15 years, as a reporter, producer and host of Weekend All Things Considered, has said the company year after year refused to give her a permanent correspondent's position while it gave such posts to less qualified men. She also accused the network of paying her a lower salary than male employees received for similar work.

In months prior to her suit, NPR did offer Davis a general assignment reporter's position on the Washington Desk at what it said was a salary "substantially above minimum.'' But Davis said the $54,000 offered was less than a correspondent's salary, for a weekend duty probationary position far below her qualifications. "It was very unlikely to become a permanent position, as far as we could tell,'' Bernabei said. NPR said it was permanent, however.

Davis was the first NPR employee to ever so publicly accuse the company of gender discrimination, though Bernabei says she has represented three women in similar disputes that were settled before going to court.

After Davis filed the suit, a dozen reporters including Alex Chadwick, Lynn Neary, Tom Gjelten and Renee Montagne signed a letter urging NPR news chief Bill Buzenberg to come to terms with Davis--who was "valuable to all of us.''

The network had two other complaints filed against it last year. One, filed by former administrative assistant Mozell Stelley, accuses NPR of race discrimination. The other, filed by former librarian Margot McGann, accuses the network of discriminating against her because of her depression and anxiety. Both cases are pending.

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Earlier story

Longtime reporter Katie Davis accuses NPR of gender bias

Originally published in Current, May 1, 1995

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Fifteen-year NPR journalist Katie Davis is charging the network with sex discrimination.

Her dispute with news managers over salary and position escalated into a public fight when she filed the lawsuit April 20 and alerted the media. It is the first time a woman has so publicly accused the network of sex discrimination.

NPR vehemently denied the charges.

Davis left NPR in mid-March; the network failed to renew her three-month contract, she says.

The 35-year-old Davis accuses NPR--her only employer since college--of continuing a long-time pattern of discrimination by refusing to make her a permanent correspondent and paying her less for the work than men were paid. Davis' lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, claims she has represented three other women in cases similar to this one that were settled before going to court. With the suit, Davis is seeking a permanent correspondent's position, $1.2 million in damages, and double backpay.

She says she'll seek a jury trial. NPR says it will ask the court to dismiss the suit.

In a written statement, the network also said: it offered Davis a permanent general assignment reporter's position on the Washington Desk at a "salary substantially above minimum''; the offer was open for three months; and that NPR has consistently paid Davis the same salary as similarly qualified men.

"NPR has a strong record of respect for equal rights in the workplace, of which we are very proud. Ms. Davis' suit is wrong on the facts and is entirely without merit,'' the statement says.

Bernabei says salary must be determined by job performed, not qualifications. For NPR to say Davis earned the same as men at her level of experience "shows they don't understand what the Equal Pay Act says,'' she argues.

NPR offered Davis a $54,000 salary and reportedly said it would waive the usual probationary period. The $54,000 is less than a correspondent's salary, and nominally above entry level, Davis says. "There are at least six less-experienced men making more than that. Frankly, I felt [the offer was] insulting.''

Davis also says the weekend-duty position offered is far below her qualifications, that there was a probationary period tied to the offer, and that her prospective editor didn't want to work with Davis. Says Bernabei: "It was very unlikely to become a permanent position as far as we could tell.''

Some colleagues support Davis' contention that the job offered amounts to an entry-level position. One staff member called it "crumbs off a table.

"After having been a foreign correspondent, a senior producer, and a host, covering what was said on Face the Nation Saturday morning is not a real challenge to a reporter,'' the employee said. Davis trained reporters in South Africa, Mozambique and Russia and reported from Mexico. She also hosted Weekend All Things Considered for about 18 months before the position went to Daniel Zwerdling.

Others argue that Davis should have taken what was offered. "It's hard to find a job at a reputable news organization these days,'' said Alex Chadwick. "And NPR for all its foibles and problems remains a great place to work.''

"Valuable to us all"

Davis began freelancing pieces for NPR while at Barnard College. From 1981 to 1984 she worked out of NPR's New York Bureau and then joined the company as a staff production assistant on Weekend ATC. In 1986, she became an associate producer and the company sent her overseas to do the training. Davis decided she wanted to work as a reporter, but says she was denied the couple of positions she applied for; "It was OK with me. I just thought I was paying my dues.'' Determined to prove her worth, she says, she went after foreign reporting experience, and moved to Mexico in 1990. She says that after nine months she sought a permanent position, but the network would give her only a $30,000 year-long contract. Davis also says that at this time NPR hired a less-experienced man to work as a permanent London reporter for $48,000 annually. "I began hitting the wall at various points, and looking to my side and seeing men not hitting the same wall,'' she says.

Davis would remain a temporary employee. In 1991 she became a reporter for Morning Edition; from July 1992 to January 1994 she served as temporary host of Weekend ATC. During these years, she says, NPR news managers repeatedly assured her she would get a permanent position.

Davis' suit details a series of instances in which men who sometimes had less or no radio experience advanced to permanent positions while she was seeking one. It also outlines four cases of discrepancies between her salary and those of men in similar jobs with equal or less experience. For example, it says that Davis earned $43,905 as a reporter for Morning Edition in 1991 while a man with three years of experience became a permanent correspondent in 1992, earning $53,753.

Davis says that she got many "great'' assignments as a temporary reporter and earned commendations from NPR news chief Bill Buzenberg and others. Sources at NPR say Davis is a top-notch producer and reporter who often spots unusual angles, has a gift for bringing people to life in her stories, and uses sound effectively. However, some criticized her performance as Weekend ATC host; one staffer said she had a "deadly'' earnestness and sounded gullible.

Late last month a dozen reporters including Chadwick, Lynn Neary, Tom Gjelten and Renee Montagne, signed a letter urging Buzenberg to work out his dispute with Davis--"valuable to all of us here at NPR.''

Given her largely positive record, some some in the company are baffled as to why NPR was not able to reach an agreement with her. "We should not have let this reporter go,'' said one staff member. "I don't know what happened.''

Not a shock?

Some sources say Davis' case points to real problems within NPR. One staff member said the conflict between Davis and the company might not have gotten this far if there were a more clearly defined model for rising in the organization. Others said the company has a habit of stringing temps along for years without giving them permanent work; a female employee believes women are more vulnerable to that condition.

More than one NPR staffer has gotten what he or she wanted from management by threatening to leave NPR or bring a suit. Bernabei says that five women have brought her in, three over sex discrimination issues. Bernabei says all three women hired her since 1989 and were having difficulty securing permanent positions; one of them was earning $15,000 less than a male counterpart. Bernabei also says a report NPR commissioned in the mid-1980s revealed there were systemic pay inequities within the company. NPR declined to release the report. Since then "NPR has made some adjustments,'' she says. "But they never corrected the truly egregious Equal Pay Act violations.''

NPR's statement said the company is proud of its equal employment record. And many within the company point to the number of women featured prominently on the air and given plum assignments. Health policy correspondent Patricia Neighmond, one of those who signed the letter supporting Davis, says: "There isn't a lack of female reportorial voices on the air. Just listen. We've got them all over the world and all over the country.''

But another said that earlier failure on NPR's part to treat women equitably has a residual presence. "I think years ago NPR lulled itself into thinking it did well by women, because it had some very visible, very prominent women. But underneath that, women were having a very difficult time.'' Today there is still the feeling that NPR treats men well because they're married and have families to support, while "women can fend for themselves,'' she said. "It doesn't shock me that someone would allege sex discrimination here.''

Given the high stakes, some say Davis has to be absolutely convinced of her position. "Katie is too professional and has too much integrity to make something like this up,'' said one staff member. "If she's bringing a lawsuit, it's because she knows something is not right. You don't put yourself through this [for nothing]. You do this because you feel you're at your wits' end and you feel you have a grievance.''

"For all the women that have seen that lawyer [Bernabei] and called her, nobody really had the guts to sue them,'' said another woman at NPR. "That is like Thelma and Louise driving over the edge of the canyon.''

 

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Later news: Reporter Sunni Khalid alleges job discrimination in suit against NPR.

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