Katie Couric discussed Matt Lauer, the Me Too movement and female leadership in business at the Dress for Success annual Women Who Inspire breakfast in New York City on Wednesday.
Couric, who spoke during a fireside chat at the nonprofit’s female empowerment event, was asked about Lauer’s ouster from the “Today” show, and the many sexual harassment allegations that have swept the media business over the past two years.
“As you can imagine, I’ve thought a lot about this over the last two years because it has been, to use the phrase that many have used, a reckoning,” Couric said. “It’s been painful for me on many levels, especially when it comes to understanding what was going on with Matt, who I think ultimately turned out to be two very different people, in terms of my relationship with him versus some of the other things that were going on.”
Couric spoke about her experience coming of age in the news business, which she called an industry “that was absolutely rife with men with lots of power,” certainly when she got her start in 1979. But today, Couric says there is still much work to be done.
“We need many more women in leadership positions in journalism and broadcast news,” Couric said, noting how vastly under-represented women are in many important positions in media. “Things don’t really change unless you have a woman with real authority and decision-making opportunities, and I really do believe that the atmosphere of a company and the standards, they all come from the top.”
Couric considers herself lucky because she was “never really subjected to sexual harassment, except for in small ways,” at the beginning of her career. Speaking to Lucy Kaylin, the editor-in-chief of “O, The Oprah Magazine,” during the fireside chat, Couric shared a story from the early ’80s when she was a junior staffer at CNN and a male executive publicly commented on the size of her breasts during a meeting with all of the top brass. Couric was shocked by the comment, and once she shared her experience with a male mentor, she was advised to write a memo to the male executive. She did, and he apologized profusely.
“That set the tone of what was acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace,” Couric said of the experience in her mid-20s.
Couric believes that the formerly permissive culture of the news business is what enabled sexual harassment to occur at the hands of high-powered men in news organizations. Couric has been researching that very topic for her memoir.
“I got into the news business in 1979, and when you think about it, it was really the first time women were really integrating this industry in full force,” Couric said. “It was this culture where fraternization existed and was going on unabated, where people were having relationships with other people within the business, and I’m sure there were policies against that, but they were never really enforced … now, I hope these big broadcast organizations are also having a reckoning and realizing there are certain standards, certain behaviors.”
“This is when there were still men who wanted to get the broads out of broadcasting,” Couric quipped. Garnering laughs from the mostly-female audience, Couric added, “I got into the business when ‘harass’ was two words instead of one.”
Asked if she’s concerned there will be backlash to the Me Too movement, Couric says she sometimes worries, but, “I think men are too trepidatious at this point to really launch a full-out backlash.”
Couric brought up McDonald’s recently firing its CEO for having consensual relationship with a lower-level female employee. “I do think, personally, there should be a zero tolerance policy of anyone of fraternization in a business,” she said. “I think that’s hard for us to wrap our heads around in some ways, especially with these demanding jobs where you spend so much time at work, but I just think you have to have a binding policy.”
Speaking more generally about the news business, she continued, “I think a permissive environment led to this other bad behavior and I’m glad that it’s now hopefully coming to an end, and I think that a lot of people have really paid the ultimate price.”
Couric also spoke about the importance of women championing themselves and their salaries, but noted it’s easier-said-than-done to negotiate for yourself. “I was in a position where I had a lot of leverage,” she noted, “And I think it’s much scarier if you don’t, and you’re not in this position where they really want you or they see that you’re going to be bringing a lot of money to a big entity like the ‘Today’ show, so I do think that it’s challenging, but I still think that women need to stand up for themselves in any way they can.”
Couric’s chat was part of the Dress for Success Women Who Inspire breakfast, which is an annual benefit event celebrating women whose leadership, passion and tenacity have changed lives, pioneered new ground and inspired those around them. Dress For Success is a nonprofit organization that empowers women and gives them the tools to succeed in the workplace.