Jill Abramson, The NYTimes’ First Female Executive Editor Was Fired — What Does This Mean For The Rest Of Us?

Yesterday afternoon, the news broke that Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times and the first-ever woman to hold that position, was leaving her position. Managing editor Dean Baquet would be replacing her, making him the first-ever African-American executive editor at the Times.

Jill Abramson had been managing editor at the Times (the number two position) since 2003 and before that was the Washington, D.C. bureau chief and an investigative reporter. She was appointed executive editor at the Times back in June 2011. If you don’t give a shit about the NYC media scene, the news may have simply looked like a personnel issue, indistinguishable from any other revolving door news item. But details about Abramson’s tenure and exit point to something bigger — shedding light on how the Times may have mistreated its first female executive editor and illustrating what it still means today to be a woman in power.  

When it was announced Abramson had been replaced on Wednesday, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. told the newsroom, “I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects.” With any new leadership, of course there will be an improvement in some aspects. But New Yorker reporter Ken Auletta has shed more light on why the Times is hanging up the proverbial “Under New Management!” sign. He writes:

Several weeks ago, I’m told, 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. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect. … Abramson, who spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, had been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, which accounted for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor “was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s”—though it was not actually the same. I was also told by another friend of Abramson’s that the pay gap with Keller was only closed after she complained. But, to women at an institution that was once sued by its female employees for discriminatory practices, the question brings up ugly memories. Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy. A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”

In other words, Abramson asked to be compensated as much as her previous male counterpart and was understandably upset to learn a man who worked under her had been earning more than she did, so she spoke up about it. (If it is true, FiveThirtyEight illustrates, she wouldn’t be the only female editor to earn less than her male counterpart.) The New Yorker seems to imply that she chafed with the management already but none of the sticking-up-for-herself really helped. It also sounds like Abramson wasn’t very well liked as a boss or a colleague.

Having never met the woman, I can only go off other people’s description of her that she wasn’t particularly warm or personable. What’s the crime there, though? Usually it isn’t someone’s flawless personality that got them such a prestigious job. In fact, some employers want managers who are seen as “tough” and “hard” because they seem like they are more serious and more competent. So I am not blaming any employees necessarily for not particularly liking Abramson — especially her bosses, like the publisher, who had a responsibility to the people under her as well. But there’s mounting evidence that her “likeability” as a woman was held to a different standard than men.

Take, for instant, that “pushy” comment that The New Yorker quoted. How often do you hear about a man being called “pushy” for standing up for himself? A pushy man would just be considered a guy who is “in charge.” This gross double standard is propping up the shitty tightwalk that successful women in charge have to walk, knowing that their likeability is being ranked as much as their accomplishments. The Atlantic reminds us that research has shown women leaders have a “narrow band of acceptable behavior.” Women in charge are supposed to embody the best of both stereotypical male and female traits — strong but not too aggressive, compassionate but not too emotional. The same most certainly is not true for men who are in power — they are seemingly allowed to behave however they like so long as the quality of their product is good. As Emily Bell at the UK’s Guardian notes, “…  [T]here is widespread and ingrained sexism in journalism, where a woman’s character traits are central to a critique of she does the job. Men, who are equally awful in just as many ways, are judged more on output and success.”

Abramson’s former colleagues smelled something rotten, it would seem. According to Capital New York, Times women voiced their concerns about Abramson’s firing during the announcement on Wednesday. One female editor allegedly said that the firing of the first female executive editor “wouldn’t sit well with [women on staff] who saw her as a role model,” Capital New York explained. Publisher Sulzberger’s response to those remarkswas reportedly along the lines of “When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.”

Such a response — while technically true — assumes that men in upper management and women in upper management operated on a level playing field in the first place. That just isn’t true, even at a supposedly-liberal newspaper and one of the world’s most supposed-liberal cities. Even if we may never know exactly what happened with Abramson and her bosses, it’s ignorant and disingenuous to pretend that her firing was just a simple personnel change.

[The New Yorker]
[The Atlantic]
[Guardian UK]
[Capital New York]
[Five Thirty Eight]

[Image of the New York Times via Shutterstock]