“Stunned” is how one New York Times reporter I know described the reaction in the newsroom yesterday to the sudden announcement that Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired.
Abramson, who had been in the job less than three years, was the first woman editor of the august paper of record. The Times itself described her management style as “mercurial and brusque” in a front-page story on her dismissal.
Her successor, managing editor Dean Baquet, with whom the same article reported she had clashed, praised his departing rival for teaching him “the value of great ambition,” and added what sounded, in context, like a parting shot, “Great editors can also be humane editors.”
Whatever the details of Abramson’s conflicts with Baquet and with her boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the Times, the words “ambition,” “mercurial,” and “brusque” raise the prospect that Abramson’s career was cut short by a double standard that undermines female leaders in every field.
What male editor, politician, or business leader has lost his job recently for excessive brusqueness?
Longtime New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal was legendary for treating reporters poorly, yet served as executive editor for more than a decade, and whiled away his sunset years writing his opinion page column “On My Mind” for another twelve years. One former Times reporter, the late Ben Franklin, who founded the Washington Spectator, used to regale friends and colleagues with stories of Rosenthal’s abuse. In one of his favorite anecdotes, Franklin said he encountered Rosenthal at a fundraiser in Washington, DC, one evening, and stopped to exclaim, “Abe Rosenthal! What are your doing at a dinner for the Commitee to Protect Journalists?”
To criticism by readers and other journalists that Abramson’s firing was based on sexism, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan replies, “I don’t think this decision had much to do with Ms. Abramson being ‘pushy,’ which is gender-related code for strong and opinionated. It was more that she was undiplomatic and less than judicious in some management and personnel decisions.”
And she appends a memo from Sulzberger himself answering the sexism charge (and denying a story by Ken Auletta of The New Yorker that Abramson recently discovered she was paid less than her predecessor, and confronted Sulzberger about the disparity):
“This Company is fully committed to equal treatment of all its employees, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. We are working hard to live up to that principle in every part of our organization. I am satisfied that we fully lived up to that commitment with regard to Jill.”
None of that answers the fundamental questions: Why did the Times fire its first woman editor? And why the haste, the surprise, and the dismissive tone?
Abramson, who racked up eight Pulitzer Prizes, but didn’t stick around for the speeches on the day of her sudden departure, surely deserved more respectful treatment than she got. The same could be said for the staff and readers of the Times.
Symbolism matters. And how women in leadership positions are treated matters, regardless of the details of any one particular case.
As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg noted in her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, “Men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry.”
Sandberg gives a keen firsthand account of the ways in which entrenched sexism holds women back at the highest levels of business and government.
She explores the shaming power of the word “bossy” and describes how the plague of “niceness” and the entrenched, sexist notions about what women ought to be like are perpetuated in the workplace by both men and women—to all of our detriment.
We don’t know yet how much that had to do with Abramson’s firing. But the way the Times handled her departure is not pretty. And that’s not good for women as a group.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive Magazine.
This article was updated at 8:10 p.m. on May 15, 2014, to correct the name of the Committee to Protect Journalists