Until this week, Jill Abramson was the executive editor of the New York Times. Image via Creative Commons.
Since yesterday afternoon, the Internet has been buzzing with the news that Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, was fired—in part, implied a New Yorker article, because she confronted her higher-ups about her compensation relative to that of her predecessor, Bill Keller. News stories since then have revealed that Abramson had quarreled with managing editor Dean Baquet over a new hire he was opposed to, that she disagreed with aspects of the paper’s digital and video strategies, and that she opposed “native advertising,” a spiffy term for sponsored content. But the official reason given for the firing, according to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., was “an issue with management,” a cause vague enough to encompass all of the above possibilities—and vague enough, too, to reflect that Abramson’s gender may have played into all of them.
Abramson’s firing comes in the wake of the Atlantic’s headline-grabbing article about the “confidence gap” between men and women and how it plays into all levels of employment and success. Perhaps more significantly, it comes in a cultural moment that is fully (if sometimes somewhat skeptically) in thrall to Sheryl’s Sandberg’s Lean In empire. Whoever coined the phrase “It’s not a glass ceiling—it’s just a very thick layer of men” (I had assumed it was Nora Ephron, but apprently Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, gets the credit) put her finger on exactly what’s so frustrating about workplace inequity: It’s something for which corporate self-help authors propose workaround after workaround in well-meaning, helpful, you-go-girl terms, rather than addressing the sexism that undergirds gender inequality.
Abramson was a first for the NYT, and her successor, Baquet, is also a first—the first black person to helm the Gray Lady. And as monumental as that is, there’s still room for a discussion about Abramson’s ouster and the realities of being a woman in the workplace. Here are five reasons her firing matters.
Because feminists have been saying all along that Leaning In isn’t enough.
One of the chief feminist concerns when Sandberg’s bestseller was first published was the fact that it put the onus of success almost entirely on women themselves, largely ignoring the systemic roadblocks of corporate culture. There have been many eyebrows cocked at Sandberg and Co.’s perky insistence that it’s women who hold ourselves back—that we simply need to be more assertive and more available in order to succeed. Abramson’s unceremonious—and, by all accounts, remarkably cold—firing drives home the reality that leaning in, with its inscrutable calculus of being assertive but not pushy, bosslike but not too masculine, etc., is not the solution to workplace inequity, not by a long shot.
If unequal wages did play a role in Abramson’s firing, there is almost unbearable irony in the fact that this past March, the Times published a guide to salary negotations for women, in which women were told to take negotiating tips written for men and “soften” them, since employers often find it “unseemly, if on an unconscious level” when women advocate for their careers; the piece also encouraged women to approach talks like a “dialogue,” not a negotiation. As with Lean In, the salary piece acknowledged that discrimination is very much a part of workplaces, but it still put the onus on women to calibrate their bearing and their behavior to a set of indelibly gendered expectations, reifying and normalizing them all over again.
Because the wage gap is real.
Ken Auletta, in his New Yorker piece on the firing, wrote that Abramson “discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs.” It’s a situation experienced by countless women at all levels of employment. The data-crunchers at Five Thirty Eight note that the median earnings for a male editor and a female one differ by almost $8,000; an earlier piece at the site, published on Equal Pay Day, noted that in the 20 biggest occupations for women working full time, “in not one do women earn the same median weekly salary as men.” Neither piece, however, breaks down how race factors into the figures—a key piece of the wage-gap discussion.
Predictably, the pay-discrepancy aspect of the Abramson story has been its most hot-button; Sulzberger sought to nip speculation in the bud with an internal memo asking staffers to clamp down on “misinformation that has been widely circulating in the media” since Wednesday’s announcement. Unfortunately for Sulzberger, you can’t put the wage-gap toothpaste back in the tube, and if there’s one bright spot in the firing, it’s that it may help amp up a conversation about equal pay that’s been simmering in the media for months.
Because language carries a shitload of weight.
Auletta notes that Abramson’s inquiry into pay discrepancy “may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” Ding ding ding! Since Abramson took the helm of the NYT less than three years ago, the language used to describe her has been predictably sexist: A 2013 Newsweek article (with the already obnoxious title “Good Jill, Bad Jill”) revealed that the editor “has admitted to occasional ‘brusqueness.’” That article’s author, Lloyd Grove, calls her “high-handed, impatient, sarcastic, judgmental, and obstinate.” An almost breathtakingly sexist 2013 account from Politico about a disagreement between Abramson and Baquet stars off thus: “One Monday morning in April, Jill Abramson called Dean Baquet into her office to complain.” It then went on to quote staffers who called Abramson “stubborn” and “unreasonable.” But really, consider that first sentence: She called Baquet into her office to complain. It might as well have followed up with, “She was probably on the rag. Women, amirite?”
It is entirely possible that Abramson was high-handed, and impatient, and judgmental—nobody is saying that women are intrinsically wonderful bosses, much less perfect humans. But let’s be clear: We’ve heard all these words before to describe denigrate women in power. And to deploy them in reporting as though they somehow explain and/or justify Abramson’s firing is sexism, plain and simple.
Several pieces about Abramson’s ouster have included an anecdote about the abovementioned 2013 argument with Baquet. It ended with him punching a wall and storming out of the room. (“The very popular Baquet admits to a history of wall-punching,” notes Emily Bell dryly in the Guardian.) In other words: Punching a wall in anger is fine, but being “snappy” and “brusque” are character flaws that cannot be tolerated at the paper of record. It’s worth considering that in a different narrative, Baquet’s wall-punching could easily, horribly, be racialized and turned against him. But in this one, all that matters is that readers know the shorthand for villainizing a female boss.
Because women in power are still considered just a little bit monstrous.
Let’s say that Sulzberger’s decision to fire Abramson had nothing to do with her “pushiness.” The very fact that the word is used at all neatly sums up the vastly different criteria by which women in positions of power are judged. We all know the comparisons by now: He’s assertive while she’s bitchy; he’s tenacious while she’s stubborn and unreasonable. Politico, listing complaints from Abramson’s newsroom staffers, included the fact that she “would regularly question top editors about why the Times did not have certain stories”—undoubtedly a key part of any editor’s job, and one that would surely go unremarked upon with a male editor. Or, as Ezra Klein tweeted on Wednesday, “Can you imagine an editor of the New York Times not being pushy? Why on earth would you want that?”
A recent report on female CEOs noted that they are more likely to be fired than their male counterparts—38 percent axed, compared to male figure of 27 percent (as seen in the chart above). There are varied reasons for this state of affairs, among them that female CEOs are often hired from outside a company rather than promoted from within, leading to a shakier cultural fit—itself a reflection on the gendered workings of corporations. But there’s no question that ingrained expectations about What Women Do bumping up against those of What Leaders Do cause friction. As Ann Friedman points out at The Cut, “It took a major plagiarism scandal to get [Arthur] Sulzberger to notice that former executive editor Howell Raines was widely reviled in the newsroom, but Sulzberger was on high alert about Abramson’s emotional-approval ratings from the very start.”
Because if an elite white woman at the most famous news organization in the world can’t rise above rote sexism, what hope do the rest of us have?
Serious question! The past couple of years’ worth of articles about “having it all” have drawn plenty of feminist ire for focusing on a small subset of women who come as close to “having it all” (a ridiculous construction to begin with) as anyone can with the best education, money, families, prestige, and platforms available. The flip side of our anger at their stories being the only ones elevated in the media way well be fear: fear that if these elite women, with all their privileges and shortcuts, can’t find a way out of the morass of quotidian affronts and entrenched sexism, then those of us with only a fraction of their stature and resources are really screwed.
It’s notable that the same day that Abramson’s firing made news, Natalie Nougayrede, the first female editor of France’s top newspaper, Le Monde, stepped down, stating that opposition to a planned editorial redesign and staff reshuffling had “undermined” her position. As with Abramson, there was no clear-cut “Running a newspaper is a man’s job, dammit!” explicitness at play, but rather a sense that expectations and judgments are simply different when a woman is in a powerful position.
It is scary and demoralizing to know that sexism played a role in such a public firing, even if we’ll never know just how much of a role. And yet, it’s also not surprising. And that’s why it matters.