For decades, Oprah's candid stories about discrimination in the entertainment industry have made headlines. Beyond the barriers she has overcome, what has always captured our attention about her accounts are the actions she took to make the workplace a better place — for herself and for others. Her interview with Vanity Fair about how she provided equal pay to the employees’ of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” is no different; Oprah put herself (and her money) on the line for equality. And she did it in a way that evokes a heist movie.
The American icon told Vanity Fair that when “Oprah” went national, the management at WLS-TV, an ABC-owned station in Chicago, refused to give women on the team a pay increase. She says that when she raised issue with this inequality, she was told that despite their show changing, her employees were “a bunch of girls… in the same room, with the same desks, and the same office, on the same street.” So, it was assumed they didn’t need a raise.
Oprah was furious, and took matters into her own hands. Or, erm, toilet paper rolls. “I had a big dinner, and my idea of being creative was to have $10,000 rolled up in toilet paper rolls at the dinner as gifts, because I couldn’t get management to pay them,” she told Vanity Fair.
While I would love to call Oprah a boss then get on my way, she’s the first to admit that individual actions like this that correct poor policy decisions aren’t sustainable, and they can’t affect the kind of change that is necessary to ensure equality for all. It’s like celebrating teachers pooling together PTO to give their colleagues a maternity leave, or talking about how “moving” it is that people have to crowd raise the money for their life-saving medical treatment. These types of “inspirational” stories shouldn’t be necessary. They are short-term solutions based on labor and resources of individuals who shouldn't be tasked with the responsibility. And while solutions like this may work for some — the people we hear about — they can’t work as widely as actual, structural change.
That’s why Oprah took action to change the structure of the company, too. In the most famous part of this story, the star went to management and told them she’d walk if her employees weren’t being paid equally. “Oprah” was on for 25 seasons, so I’m guessing management gave her crew that raise. Collective action that results in the best possible outcome for all parties? Now that’s boss.