What We're Really Saying When We Talk About Jill Abramson's Firing

The abrupt firing of The New York Times's first female executive editor earlier this week shocked the media world. While speculation about the reasons behind her departure swirl, one thing is clear: The way we talk about women in power is vastly different than the way we talk about male leaders.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad bosses in the world. Managers who lack people skills, who don’t listen or empathize, who are disconnected from both the day-to-day problems and the bigger-picture issues inherent in their workplace.

Was recently fired New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson one of these bad bosses? Maybe. Maybe not.

There have been many (anonymous) reports that her staff found her to be stubborn, condescending, demoralizing, and difficult to work with.

But for every anonymous staffer calling her abrasive, there are others who laud her as an inspiring and talented journalist, including industry standouts like The New Yorker's Jane Mayer and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jeff Gerth.

Women in the Times newsroom have also rallied around Abramson, and say that her leadership changed the culture of a newsroom historically dominated by men and had an impact on editorial and staffing choices as well.

And it wasn’t at just the management level: Slate writer Amanda Hess reported that Abramson attended an occasional after-work happy hour for junior staffers at the Times nicknamed the "Old Girls Club," meant to forge relationships between the younger generation of women at the paper. "It was awe-inspiring, the way she took that time out of her life to powwow with us, without ever seeming ceremonial about it," one female staffer told Hess.

If Abramson truly was the polarizing figure that the countless articles make her out to be, perhaps she wasn’t well suited to a leadership role—but then neither are many of other of the innovative—male—leaders that we celebrate, and attempt to emulate.

Both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are repeatedly cited as difficult personalities to work for, yet that aspect of their leadership is generally regarded as a blip in the biography of their genius rather than its defining characteristic.

Even Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, who served as managing editor during her tenure, was given a pass for bad behavior (including punching walls) that it’s hard to imagine being granted to any women in business; Baquet himself admitted to having "tantrums."

Bad behavior in leadership shouldn’t be tolerated no matter the gender of the executive. The issue lies in the fact that when men display tyrannical behavior, it’s often shrugged off, and when women do so (and often with much less serious behavior) it’s met with indignation. More often than not it’s also met with defamation of her character.

There is speculation that Abramson’s ousting was a combination of her inquiries into the reported pay discrepancies between herself and her male predecessor Bill Keller, and her clashes with top brass as well as Baquet over her reported attempts to hire a co-managing editor to share his role.

Whatever the real reason (or combination of reasons) that Abramson was so unceremoniously dumped, the narrative that’s getting the most attention is that she was "pushy," and "mean," and was fired for it. The Times itself reports that many women in the newsroom are left thinking that their boss got the boot more for her gender than for anything else.

"I think traits that are perceived positively in men are perceived negatively in women: aggressiveness, decisiveness, and even brusqueness," said Patricia Cohen, a culture reporter who has been at The Times for 15 years. "Many male leaders in business have the same personality traits, and it doesn’t necessarily hurt them."

Much like all other powerful women—Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer come to mind—Abramson is being labeled, essentially, as a bitch. Thursday’s New York Post report of her firing went so far as to include a giant caricature of an angry green witch.

To add insult to injury, top editors at the Times didn’t even acknowledge the many wins achieved during her tenure—eight Pulitzer Prizes, the appointment of a number of female senior editors, digital innovation.

Even Howell Raines, the Times executive editor who was forced out in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, got to leave with a speech and applause in the newsroom. This is a guy who not only oversaw the tenure of a plagiarizing reporter, but he also had reputation for being an unpleasant hardass in the newsroom. Then again, he is also a man.

[Image: Flickr user samchills]

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4 Comments

  • Dina del Valle

    Yeah, that good, coded language that she was "stubborn" but I bet Keller and now Baquet are "decisive" and "know what they want." And no doubt however condescending she may have been, and that's clearly in the (male?) eye of the beholder, I doubt it ever rose to the level of Bill Keller's mansplaining to a cancer patient how she should, and should not, discuss her illness on social media. Surprise: He preferred for her to shut up and show the requisite quiet dignity his father-in-law showed.

    But I'm sure her firing had nothing to do with her being a woman.

  • An interesting contrast to read right after watching Barbara Walters say goodbye to 50 years of television. She took on being the first female news anchor in 1976, busting down doors for Oprah, Maria Shriver, Diane Sawyer, and countless other women in the news industry. We've come so far in so many ways, and yet as you point out above, not nearly far enough.

  • interesting observation...it was great to see the barbara accolades...(she showed a great sense of humor...a la saturday night live) .

    despite the many awards jill has won, ground she has broken, something tells me there wasn't as much of a likability factor there

    albeit to a greater degree, different jobs,..barbara..newsreporter/interviewer/entertainment

    Jill..the way one might describe her job could be construed as unfair characterization...hard hitting journalist, activist in the workplace, etc