“It should matter”: Jennifer Barnett, the boys club, and women in the workplace

By Katie Ryu

Jennifer Barnett wrote that she was 44 years old when her career ended. 

In a piece recently released on the online publishing platform, Medium, the former managing editor of The Atlantic came forward with her story about the abuse she endured from James Bennet, the former editor-in-chief of said publication and a man once elected president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. 

Paraphrasing or summarizing could never do her essay justice, but Barnett’s thorough and painful account involves belittlement, blatant sexism, threats, and the notorious “boys club.” 

“It’s just a boys club, people would say. You have to learn to fit in. So I did. I adapted. I’d had my fair share of working with demanding editors… I knew how to adapt. I learned to listen outside of doorways to figure out what meetings were being scheduled so I could make sure I’d be on the invite. I’d drink the bourbon. I’d miss the bedtime,” Barnett wrote.

Her story is important and infuriating for countless reasons, but for me, there was something so gut-wrenching about the overwhelming fact that Barnett did everything “right.” She was good at her job because she had to be, she put in the extra effort her male counterparts didn’t, she went to human resources multiple times, and she withstood the mistreatment. She did all that before having to walk away from the career she spent literal decades building. 

See, we know about the boys club. We’ve experienced and witnessed its effects. We know it’s working against us, and we know the system is broken. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s not still demoralizing. 

It doesn’t mean it’s not disheartening or distressing. As both a student journalist and a teenage girl, the reality of these situations quite frankly hurt. In a lot of ways, it’s intimidating. Yet, it’s also incredibly angering. 

And we should be angry. 

We should be angry because Barnett’s story reflects those of other women in journalism, other women in publishing and media and countless other industries across the board.  It’s the story of women of color, of marginalized groups, of those who are subject to the wide-ranging impacts of the boys club and a deeply systemic issue that exists in the workplace and beyond. 

Barnett’s piece resonated with many, and she shared myriad truths that needed to be shared. 

It’s hugely unfortunate though, that her closing notes regarding Bennet seem to be true as well.

“My boss went on to mold the coverage of the paper of record before spectacularly, publicly, falling on his face. But his friends are looking out for him. And they have powerful jobs molding the coverage at the most prestigious publications in existence. He’ll be back. They will make sure of it,” Barnett said.

Bennet, after his time as The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, took the position of the editorial page editor at the New York Times. He resigned in June 2020 days after the Times Opinion section, which he oversaw, ran a heavily criticized Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton that called for the military and “an overwhelming show of force” in response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations. Bennet admitted to not reading it before its publication, and the editor has made his fair share of mistakes during his tenure. For example, he allowed an anti-Semitic cartoon to be published in the Opinion pages of the Times’ international edition.

He has since been hired by The Economist. Bennet officially joined on February 1 as “a visiting senior editor.” 

In writing this article, I admittedly found it difficult to generate an ending that was just right, to neatly tie my thoughts together in such a manner that conveyed my exasperation for the rampant misogyny women face and my deep resentment of all our systems designed to keep certain groups of people with power in power no matter what. A conclusion that expressed a long overdue need for change. 

Perhaps it’s most fitting that I simply echo Barnett’s own conclusion to an essay that was a powerful read. 

“It should matter.”