Was The New York Times’ Jill Abramson Fired for Being Bossy While Female?
Shock waves reverberated through the publishing world as Jill Abramson, the first ever female Executive Editor of The New York Times was abruptly sacked by Publisher/Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. on Wednesday.
Abramson allegedly had an “abrasive style” that contributed to her firing. Color me skeptical. If you want to find a reason to undercut a woman, call her “bossy,” “abrasive” or “pushy.” But being the boss was her job. This Goldilocks' “the porridge is too hot or too cold” conundrum is crazy-making. Be the boss but don’t be “bossy.” How can any woman thread this needle? Say that to a man and see how it goes over.
Coincidentally, CNN’s Frida Ghitis reported that just before Ambramson’s head went on the chopping block, “Natalie Nougayrède, editor-in-chief of the prestigious newspaper, Le Monde, was forced out of her job after other journalists accused her of being too authoritarian, or "Putin-like."” This has a familiar ring.
During Ms. Abramson’s less than three-year tenure as Executive Editor of The NY Times, the paper won 8 Pulitzers, she was credited with moving the newsroom successfully into the digital age, and the company’s stock doubled. She also made strides toward gender equality by promoting qualified female editors, rejecting the Times’ male-centric newsroom model. Slate’s Amanda Hess shared what a hero she was to many up and coming women in the newsroom.
Danielle Kurtzleben of Vox reported that “the Times’ business flourished [under Abramson’s tenure] even as other newspapers suffered. The web site, too, has been something of a marvel, generating huge revenue off of its paywall. But the upheaval necessary to stay ahead lent itself to continuous clashes between Abramson and her colleagues.”
Beyond Abramson having a management style we would be loath to criticize in any man (did WaPo’s Ben Bradlee get fired for being “brusque” or pitting rivals in the newsroom against each other), it appears the bigger problem was her discovery that she was being paid appreciably less than her predecessor Bill Keller for doing the same job. Could the real problem be that she had the audacity to contact a lawyer to make polite inquiries after feeling stonewalled?
The New York Times minced words by saying she was not making “meaningfully less” than Keller. How much is meaningful? Meaningful to whom? Management claimed that Keller had more seniority, therefore his compensation and pension package should have been higher. But that argument does not hold water when we discover that in Ms. Abramson’s prior position as managing editor, she was also being paid less than someone who would be considered her underling – a male deputy managing editor. How does the Times square that one? To my knowledge, they have not.
This is not about whether her successor, Dean Baquet, formerly managing editor, will do a good job. But the question of gender bias is worth examining here.
Arthur Sulzberger used as evidence of Abramson’s “brusque” style that she abruptly told a staffer to leave a staff meeting to replace a stale photo. Ms. Kurtzleben asks how that compares with Tim Cook, head of Apple, who, referring to a “manufacturing problem in China,” looked at an employee in a staff meeting and said “Why are you still here?” The employee raced to the airport and was aboard the next plane to China without so much as a change of clothes.
The other incident covered by a number of media outlets was a clash between Ms. Abramson and Mr. Baquet where he threw a temper tantrum, punched a wall and went home for the day.
I look forward to Mr. Baquet’s calm and congenial management style.
More likely that Ms. Abramson’s inquiry after a pay disparity is what got Mr. Sulzberger’s knickers in a twist. This is an accomplished woman who, true to form in corporate America, only got the job when the company was in deep trouble.
Per Ms. Kurtzleben:
“Abramson was appointed to her position in 2011 — a horrible time for newspapers. …In a 2005 paper, researchers from the University of Exeter coined the term "glass cliff" to refer to the tendency of poorly performing companies to appoint women leaders during periods of maximum turmoil. The result is women end up taking the helm of companies during periods of hard choices and painful cuts that can make success seem nearly impossible….Abramson was handed the reins of a New York Times undergoing a wrenching digital transition.”
Now that she’s pulled them over the hump, she is gone in favor of another male. It is also possible that Abramson was labeled combative or pushy by some dinosaurs who resented taking orders from a woman.
Per The Guardian/UK:
Nate Silver, who left the Times last July and took his highly successful FiveThirtyEight blog to ESPN, said in a tweet : “I'll always be a huge @JillAbramson fan. She did a hell of a lot more good for the New York Times than the upper management there.”
Criticizing the hypocrisy of The New York Times’ progressive proselytizing, Tony Lee of Breitbart offered an interesting theory:
Abramson also reportedly did not like the wall between business and editorial that was coming down with native advertising, and [Dean] Baquet, whom Sulzberger reportedly viewed as the future editor, was being courted by Bloomberg News. Abramson, in this respect, was what one would call a "bridge" quarterback on an NFL team waiting for its true franchise signal caller. She also has been described as "brusque," and there are questions about whether a male editor with the same characteristics would be described similarly or referred to as more of a leader.
In order to keep Baquet from being wooed away by Bloomberg, did publisher Sulzberger get rid of Jill Abramson as soon as practicable after she had gotten the paper through some tough times? Did anyone tell her when she took the job she was merely a placeholder? Apparently, Sulzberger initially passed over Baquet to promote Abramson. This gives the appearance that she was there to pull the paper through a transitional phase only to be ousted in favor of the man Sulzberger really wanted in the job.
Ken Auletta who had reported about the pay disparity in The New Yorker, backtracked a bit in Politico the next day by stating that the pay gap issue was only one problem in Abramson’s firing. Yet Auletta’s quote may feed into the theory about Baquet waiting in the wings:
“[Abramson] wasn't just fired, clearly, because of the pay disparity issue. That fed into a narrative that she was difficult to work with. and then Dean Baquet, her deputy found out and was upset that she was trying to hire someone. He felt he wasn't in the loop on that and he complained to Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, so that added again to this narrative that Jill is difficult and so last Friday he went to her and said, ‘time for a change.’”
She was the boss. Why shouldn’t she be able to “hire someone”? Sounds like these two were jockeying for position and Abramson lost out since Baquet was on cozier terms with the Publisher.
This is not to say she was the model manager, but as Mr. Auletta noted, “Abrasiveness has never been a firing offense at the Times.” It is hard to believe that a man would have been so faulted for the same behavior, or paid less than his worth despite a long record of journalistic excellence.
Ironic that two months ago, The New York Times was advising women to be “likable,” “calibrated,” and to conform to “feminine norms” when asking for a raise:
"Discrimination persists in the workplace and it isn’t necessarily intentional or overt, experts on gender and negotiation say.
But it can emerge when women act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine, and when women advocate for themselves, these experts say, some people find it unseemly, if on a subconscious level.
As a result, women need to take a more calibrated approach, whether in asking for a higher salary or a new position. Otherwise, they can risk being perceived as overly demanding and unlikable, experts say, and their requests can backfire."
The article, by Tara Siegel Bernard, quoted studies that in so many words told women to keep copious records of every compliment they’d received for their work product, to prove their worth when asking for better compensation. Can you imagine a man carrying on like this? “Well, Joe says I’m really good at what I do. Here’s my gold star. Tee hee.” (Bats eyelashes, cross legs demurely at the ankle).
This is telling women they still need to ask permission to be granted the same rights they should have anyway. Good is good. Competent is competent. Who cares what it looks like?
A recent study where a male and female peer in a position of authority, with the same level of expertise and the same behavior showed that staffers found the man “more likable” and appealing, while the woman was described as “selfish.” These descriptors were reflective of gender – nothing else.
While we may never know the truth of machinations behind the scenes that led to Abramson being escorted from the building without even an opportunity to say goodbye to the troops, the sense through reading multiple accounts of this episode was that she got too big for her britches – demanding equal compensation and taking the reins of power in her job – as any man would – instead of tolerating a pat on the head.
Surely, the Times could not argue with the results achieved during her tenure as Executive Editor. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, for example, presided over his company paying $20 billion in fines for transgressions committed mostly on his watch only to see himself get his pay bumped to $20 million per year. Are we saying his "demeanor" is so agreeable it can sustain a $20 billion loss and Abramson's is so disagreeable that her doubling the Times' stock gets her fired?
Reading the “instructions” to women that Ms. Bernard quoted earlier provides a disturbing coda to Ms. Abramson's experiences. However she butted heads with management, she wrongfully assumed she had the power associated with her title, when in reality, she was hanging by a thread.
In Abramson’s case, a woman acting like the boss was the final straw.
*Originally published at EPIC TIMES.*
Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin. Sharing the untold story of Hillary's 2008 campaign, Dirty Words exposes media sexism in a society not as evolved as advertised. "The book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power." #1 on Amazon's Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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