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Why 32-year-old Oprah Winfrey threatened to stop working to prove a point to her boss

Zameena Mejia
Why 32-year-old Oprah Winfrey threatened to stop working to prove a point to her boss

When billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey was 32 years old, she became the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. Although years of success would follow, Winfrey nearly put her entire career on the line to make sure her female coworkers got a pay raise.

"We were young women in our thirties trying to figure it out and find our own way. I was making a lot of money and my producers were still getting the same salaries," Winfrey recalled in a video featured in her Time's Most Influential People of 2018 profile.

"I went to my boss at the time and I said, 'everybody needs a raise,'" she continued.

After Winfrey's boss questioned why the women needed raises, he told her, "You're only girls. They're a bunch of girls, what do they need more money for?"

The year was 1986 and Winfrey had worked her way up from the start of her career as a news anchorwoman at 19 years old, a position in which she said she never felt completely at ease.

"Everyone thought that being a news anchorwoman was the end-all be-all job. And even I thought that before I got the job, but it was very unsettling to me," Winfrey told Time. "I never felt comfortable in my own skin. It never felt authentic to me. I always felt like I had a pretend voice when I went on the air."

While reporting in the field for television, Winfrey noted that unlike her other peers, she had a tendency to empathize with the people she interviewed. As one of the youngest employees on staff, her compassion would instead get her in trouble with her bosses and lead to a demotion.

But 10 years later, Winfrey would run a talk show that "really freed" her and allowed her to be herself: "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"It was the most authentic thing for me, it was like coming home," Winfrey said. "I built the show around myself and the producers."

After "The Oprah Winfrey Show" got picked up for syndication, Winfrey realized that while the show would bring in substantially more money, her producers continued earning the same salary.

"Well, either my producers are going to get raises or I'm going to sit down. I just won't work. I will not work unless they get paid more money," Winfrey said.

Her boss agreed to give them more money.

"And while I was waiting for the bosses to pay them, I paid them myself in the interim," Winfrey said.

Today, Winfrey is worth $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

"I always knew there would come a time when I would be in a position where I wouldn't have to swallow it," Winfrey added.

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