Of the many talented women who hold responsible jobs on major daily newspapers in Canada, surprisingly few have managed to reach the upper editorial echelons. Dona Harvey has been editor of the Winnipeg Tribune and managing editor of the Vancouver Province, Lise Bissonnette is the editor of Le Devoir in Montreal, Barbara Amiel is the editor of the Toronto Sun (which in some quarters isn’t even considered a newspaper). And then, there’s Shirley Sharzer.
Shirley Sharzer is the first woman to be appointed to the job of associate managing editor on Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. Her title conveys authority, some power and undeniable prestige. A Jot of newspapermen and women would sell their souls, mothers and investment portfolios (and not necessarily in that order) to have her job. For now, it’s Sharzer’s. She won it with her intelligence, talent, exacting professionalism and dedication. She also possesses much natural warmth, kindness., humanity, and the admiration of friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, Sharzer is not content. She wants to be managing editor of the Globe, but she has been passed over for the job twice in six years.
“I don’t want an epitaph that reads ‘ever insistent,’ which is what it’s clearly going to be,” says Sharzer with a laugh. “I want it to say I really did run the show once,” she adds without laughter over a cup of tea in the living room of her second-floor Georgian apartment in Lower Forest Hill.
With Sharzer, such pessimism is fleeting. She thinks both pessimism and cynicism are unhealthy. But twoGlobe editors in succession have chosen not to award her the job she wants so much. Their decisions have left her feeling passed over, and wondering. Why didn’t they promote her? Wasn’t she talented enough? Didn’t she have the right skills or enough experience? No one ever told her.
A tinge of pessimism didn’t always obscure Sharzer’s view of her future at the Globe. In 1978, well on her way to becoming the first woman dean of the University of Western Ontario’s graduate journalism program, she was lured to the paper by then editor Richard Doyle. During her four years as the assistant dean, her talents had not only been widely respected, they had been in great demand. According to Doyle, “Editors were going to her for advice.”
His decision to hire Sharzer was prompted by a phone call from writer June Callwood. Callwood, who had known Sharzer professionally for several years, told Doyle that she might be interested in leaving Western. Says Sharzer, “I missed the real world.” Doyle told Callwood that he owed her at least a bottle of champagne for giving him the tip.
“One of the most brilliant things I did was to hire Shirley Sharzer,” says Doyle, now the Globe‘s editor emeritus. He praises her administrative flair and her talent for training new reporters.
Sharzer, 56, says she couldn’t decline an offer to become the assistant managing editor of a paper she had always respected. She found the mystique surrounding the Globe irresistible. Sharzer’s longtime friend Andrew MacFarlane, dean of Western’s school of journalism at the time, is more blunt about why she accepted the job. “She knew there was a good chance she would end up running The Globe and Mail.”
It appears this was not to be. Two years later she was passed over for the job of managing editor. Doyle promoted executive editor Cameron Smith to the post. Sharzer was made associate managing editor. “They gave me a title,” she says matter-of-factly.
A second opportunity came and fled last year when Doyle stepped aside as editor-in-chief. Norman Webster succeeded him in August. In October, as part of a wider shakeup, Webster removed Cameron Smith from the managing editor’s job and replaced him with the Globe‘s sports editor, Geoffrey Stevens. Sharzer stayed where she was.
Being passed over the first time hurt her but the second time was worse. She now knows that, barring unforeseen circumstances, she will never be The Globe and Mail‘s managing editor. Being left out probably hurts her as much today as it did th~ first time it happened, 40 years ago.
Shirley Sharzer was born in Winnipeg on January 23,1928, the third of four children of Russian immigrant~ Abraham Jack and Judith Lev. By the age of 16, she had entered the University of Manitoba to study English and, to her great surprise and pleasure, was being rushed by a sorority. The unexpected recognition ended abruptly. The sorority discovered Sharzer was Jewish. The sorority did not admit Jews. Being dropped and ignored after all the attention deeply affected her.
“That was my first experience of being ostracized and it hurt. A lot,” she says quietly.
Finding herself emotionally unprepared for university at such a young age, Sharzer quit a year and a half later and was lucky enough to snare a reporting job. When a printer’s strike at both the Winnipeg Tribune and Free Press closed the two newspapers on November 8, 1945, the printer’s union
started a bi-weekly newspaper, the Winnipeg News, to keep its members working. Shy and inexperienced, Sharzer applied for a job as a reporter and got it.
The job at the News was the start of a career in newspaper journalism for Sharzer. While it has been a career of many rewards, it has also been one of setbacks and frustrating discrimination. When she was at the News, she was led out of preliminary hearings by police to prevent her hearing descriptions of sexual or violent crimes. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the brains to say no.” When the strike ended, she was hired as a day editor by British United Press, now United Press Canada, but was fired within days because head office decided she was too young to do the job. Sharzer was crushed. “I remember going home and thinking it was the end of the world.”
Not one to pine or whine about lost opportunity, she found a job at the Hudson’s Bay Co. in the complaints department, then worked briefly for the Winnipeg Citizen, a short-lived, left-leaning newspaper. At 20, she was hired as a reporter by the Winnipeg Free Press. After covering city hall, she became the first Manitoba newspaperwoman to be assigned to the provincial legislature. In 1950, at 22, she married Meyer Sharzer, the paper’s city editor. Four years later she met discrimination again. She became pregnant, and that effectively ended her reporting career.
“They never said it in so many words, but the Free Press didn’t want me out reporting while pregnant,” says Sharzer. “It was suggested that I go to work on the desk,” She was quietly moved to copy editing from the reporting she loved. After her son was born, she opted out of the newspaper business for ten years to raise him and a daughter born almost two years later. She and her husband moved the family to Montreal and then Toronto. In 1964, tired of doing unpaid community work while paying for expensive babysitters, she took a job at The Toronto Telegram.
Hired to write cutlines, Sharzer progressed through the Tely’s editorial ranks until, in 1967, she was being considered for a job on the newsdesk. Her career almost stalled again. A senior editor was strongly opposed to putting a woman in such a high-pressure position. Sharzer later discovered he was convinced a woman would be too emotional for the newsdesk, would cry a lot and would not work effectively.
Andrew MacFarlane, then managing editor, says that kind of reaction was typical of the times. “It was what old-line newsmen thought of women.” But he had a solution. “I said, news editors are always in here crying to me, so it won’t make any difference.” MacFarlane promoted her. He was never sorry.
When the Tely folded in 1971, Sharzer was hired by The Toronto Star as assistant features editor. Three years later she was made features editor. But during her last year at the Star, she was passed over for the jobs of city editor and assistant managing editor.
“With hindsight, I think I wasn’t promoted because I was a woman,” she says. There are former Staremployees who agree with her, one of whom believes “she should have been the first woman city editor but there was no way they were going to appoint a woman.” Ray Gardiner, the Star‘s ombudsman who was then assistant managing editor in charge of features, disagrees. He maintains the Star never opposed putting a woman in the city editor’s chair.
Sharzer says the late Martin Goodman, then managing editor, told her she wasn’t given the job because the pub1isher, Beland Honderich, didn’t think she had the required administrative skills. Sharzer was shocked because she thought she had been showing her administrative skills through the handling of a staff.
“That was the first time I knew I was passed over,” she says. When the position of assistant managing editor became vacant, Sharzer competed for it with a male colleague she prefers not to identify. Both were rejected in favor of Geoff Stevenson, now managing editor of the Hamilton Spectator. On the surface her sex wasn’t the reason, but Harry Goldhar, who worked as a copy editor under Sharzer, isn’t certain.
“She would have done a better job than some of the people who got the managing editor’s job,” says Goldhar, who now owns a chain of community newspapers in Toronto. He added that when a talented woman is not being promoted, you assume it’s because she’s a woman.
In 1974, Sharzer decided to leave the Star and test academic life at Western, only to return to newspapers four years later and experience being passed over again. But was she denied the job of managing editor at the Globe because of her sex? According to MacFarlane, who still teaches at Western, it’s a distinct possibility. “You have to assume that’s the reason, failing a professional one,” he says. “If someone gets a job and the only difference between the two is he’s a man and she’s a woman, you come to this conclusion.”
While it’s a conclusion that can be readily and understandably drawn, it may not be entirely accurate.
Last October, Shirley Sharzer’s office gave new meaning to the word claustrophobic. Directly across the hall from the managing editor’s, it was small, cramped, and had no carpet or comfortable chairs. The art on the walls consisted of a poster by Hunderwasser, a Van Gogh reproduction and an art department illustration.
By contrast, Geoffrey Stevens’s office was spacious and tastefully decorated. The colors were appropriately muted. There was a couch, carpeting and a large authoritative desk. The paintings on the wall included a sky scene by Geoffrey Armstrong. Clearly, it was an office befitting Stevens’s position while, just as clearly, Sharzer’s was not.
The startling difference has been equalized over the past few months. A wall has been torn down to give Sharzer more space. She has a comfortable, plum-colored sofa and chairs, a chrome and glass coffee table and a pearl gray carpet. A new desk with a mahogany finish and desk-front chairs have been ordered to replace her regulation office furniture.
It is obvious to even the least cynical observer that Sharzer is being compensated for not being promoted. She refuses to place this interpretation on the changes, although she admits that it could be perceived that way. Redecorating is one of the ways the Globe is telling her that it wants her to stay.
“There are some people you’d be happy to see leave,” says Norman Webster. “She’s not one of them.” He adds that this has been made clear to Sharzer.
If Sharzer is so highly valued at the Globe, why have two editors risked losing her? And why hasn’t she left? Sharzer doesn’t hide the fact that she receives an annual offer from the Montreal Gazette, has been courted by an American newspaper and has received a substantial offer to work in a business outside journalism. But she refuses to use her sex as an
excuse for her lack of advancement at the Globe because “it’s very easy to pin everything on that.”
There has been much speculation at the Globe about why Sharzer hasn’t been promoted. The two dominant opinions are that it’s because she’s a woman and that she was never meant to be more than a token. Doyle solidly rejects both views and says the men chosen for the job of managing editor had worked for the paper longer although, “seniority is not the deciding factor.” He doesn’t want to give one encompassing reason why Sharzer wasn’t promoted because there were too many factors involved.
“I don’t think in the weighing of things that you could argue that she was passed over,” he says, adding that “Shirley wasn’t hired to sit by the door.”
When she first arrived at the paper, Sharzer filled in for the managing editor when he was away and acted in his capacity on Sunday. She attended and sometimes ran the two daily news conferences. She oversaw the foreign desk, photo desk and lifestyle section (in fact, Sharzer initiated the Globe‘s City Living section). Her duties remained substantially the same when she became associate managing editor. With Stevens, she will run the hard news side of the paper. Webster says the Globe wants Sharzer “to take a stronger and more active role in the whole management of our news operations.” These are not the duties of a token woman.
In fact, Webster seems shocked and angry at the mere mention of tokenism. “I would put that statement into the category of the bizarre,” he says, adding that no one with Sharzer’s qualifications comes into a job only because she’s female.
Unlike Doyle, Webster had a clear-cut reason for not promoting Sharzer. He knew categorically that he wanted Geoffrey Stevens as his new managing editor. He considers him a superior talent in the business and he never seriously thought of anyone else. He emphasized that it wasn’t a matter of considering Sharzer for the job and finding her wanting. “Not choosing Shirley had nothing-t6 do with a lack of ability,” he says, “I didn’t pass over Shirley. I went directly for Stevens.”
While Webster had known Stevens for many years, he had only a two-year acquaintance with Sharzer. He points out that Stevens had extensive editorial experience at the Globe. Since joining the paper in 1962, he has been a city hall, Queen’s Park and Ottawa reporter, a national political columnist, associate editor in Ottawa, national editor in Toronto and sports editor.
If being a woman hasn’t held Sharzer back, then what, on top of circumstance, has stalled her? Perhaps part of the answer can be found in a comment made by June Callwood. The Globe knows that Sharzer’s ability is more than adequate to justify a promotion, says Callwood. She thinks Sharzer’s management style is getting in her way. “She’s the kind of person who believes in a conciliatory, respectful, warm approach to people. Her style is marked by consideration for other people’s feelings. In a male world, this is seen as a weakness. If she’d acted tough and belligerent, she’d have been promoted.”
Despite the frustration, Sharzer enjoys her job and the people with whom she works. These, along with her love of Toronto, appear to be the two main reasons she’s still at the paper. If Webster and Stevens give her the responsibility they’ve promised, and more recognition, Sharzer will probably remain for quite a while. Even though she doesn’t have to.
“If she wants to go further and doesn’t think she can at the Globe, she doesn’t have to stay here. She’s one,. person who can pick where she wants to go and not many people can say that,” says Doyle with admiration.
In this situation at least, Sharzer has the last word. “At some point I may say I’m tired and haven’t had the recognition so maybe I should go elsewhere,” she says. “But I’m not ready to quit yet.”