Smashing ceilings: Five famous women and how they got to the top

The well known women at are stopping by WalletPop on a frequent basis to answer your spending and personal finance questions.

This week we asked them: In getting ahead in your career, what – if any – biases have you encountered? Did you confront them?

Marlo Thomas: Actresses don't suffer the same kind of bias problems as actress-hyphenates do. I was an actress-producer in my '20s and I encountered a lot of men who didn't want to deal with me or wanted to bed me, but seldom wanted to listen to me. I had to be very focused or I would be undermined in some way. It took a few years but word got out that I meant business so I was able to conduct my business. That ... and good ratings made them listen.

Liz Smith: I guess I was part of the problem, born in a time when women got ahead by "going along" with their male bosses. I did that and I did get ahead. But being a first-rate No. 2 helper to famous men grew tiresome. Finally, I got the message and became a feminist.

Joni Evans: At a book publishing firm, around 1973, I was a senior editor but my salary ($17,500) was $2,000 less than a male colleague (let's call him Miles, with the same title). I went to ask for a raise. My authors were doing extremely well and it was the time when paperback dollars counted. I had had three New York Times bestsellers and almost $500,000 in paperback earnings that year.

I asked for a $1,500 raise whereupon my boss said, "But that would mean you'd be making almost as much money as Miles."

"What's wrong with that," I asked? My boss responded: "Well, you're a girl with an employed husband and no children; Miles has an unemployed wife and two children to support so I certainly can't give you more even though you are doing far better than he is."

I remember feeling heat well up inside me when he spoke, but it was the early days and I didn't have the words to think "gender bias." Just unfair. I did, however, quit within two months.

Joan Ganz Cooney: I'm sure I encountered biases along the way but they were subtle and not easy to confront. Plus you don't know that you're being turned down for a job because you're a woman or because you're seen as not up to it for other reasons.

Many years ago the question of whether a woman would be taken seriously as head of the Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) was raised by another woman (not in front of me, you can be sure) at one of the funding foundations.

When I was asked if I'd be willing to be No. 2 if a man could be found to head the Workshop, I answered no and that ended the discussion.

Judith Martin: Biases? In the newspaper business -- against women? I seem to recall a few. But the men didn't notice and then didn't agree that it was important. So we got their attention by suing them. And we won. is a website aimed at influential women over 40, much like its distinguished founders and contributors, which include Marlo Thomas, Lesley Stahl, Candice Bergen, Liz Smith, Joni Evans, Mary Wells and Whoopi Goldberg.

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