Friday, May 16, 2014

"Brusque, pushy and underpaid": the firing of Jill Abramson

The spectrum of my emotions at the ousting of New York Times top editor Jill Abramson: shock, disbelief, confusion and disappointment followed by a barrage of questions, "So soon?" "What happened?" "How could they do that?" "What did she do?" "Was it a coup?" 

In short, I am troubled. 

Of course when news of her firing hit the Internet on Wednesday the rumor mongers went straight to work. "She got fired because she's a woman," "Top editor complained about pay inequality weeks before firing," and my favorite, "The New York Times wanted an agreeable editor... What it got instead is an assertive, ambitious woman." There's so much chatter on Twitter my head is spinning.

The stories and opinions are quickly surfacing and while some of them lack class there are a few that are noteworthy. Like this eloquent take Ann Friedman wrote for The Cut

             "From the outside, depending on your point of view, Abramson’s firing 
             was either sexist retribution or a gender-blind decision to ax an ineffective 
             boss. But from the inside, incidents like this are never so clear. Women 
             never know whether they’re being met with a hostile reaction because of 
             their performance — something that they can address and change — or 
             because of both male and female colleagues’ internalized notions of how 
             women should behave."

Friedman's observations beg the question: How are women supposed to act in the workplace? If we are bold and assertive we are deemed man eaters. If we show emotion we're considered weak. If we make decisions based on fact and rationale we're cold, calculating b*tches. And God forbid if we're ambitious. 

Dean Baquet, Abramson's managing editor who now has the top spot, thanked his former boss for teaching him "the value of great ambition" and then added that John Carroll, whom he worked for at The Los Angeles Times, "told me that great editors can also be humane editors." 

Seems Baquet admired the fact that Abramson knew what she wanted and how to do it. What he didn't like was that she apparently ruled with an iron fist. I wonder, would he have said the same if Abramson was a man? I think if Jill Abramson were born John Abramson we would not be having this conversation.

I don't know Abramson personally, I've never worked for her nor the Times. I will never know exactly what happened or why she got fired. But as a woman and as someone who has held leadership positions I understand what it's like to work in a man's world. I know what it's like to be the "only one."

             "The first woman, or the only woman, is never just one woman. She’s 
             everyone, both an outlier and a trend. And she’s profiled accordingly, 
             scrutinized by both the public and her bosses," Friedman writes. 

I've questioned my bosses for their leadership decisions. I've pushed for change and have been pushed back. Like Abramson, I've asked the boss for better pay. And I'm pretty sure I too, have been let go for these reasons.

The workplace is like life. "Learning to get people on board with your ideas is an art," Friedman writes. "One that requires work to master no matter what your gender." I've been lucky enough to have terrific bosses (both male and female) who have modeled this for me. I've also had terrible bosses (both male and female) who have taught me how not to be in the workplace.

Whether Abramson was terrific or terrible and whether or not she had mastered the art of idea selling only her co-workers can judge. And even those opinions will range from passionate, fearless and talented to unapproachable, condescending and brusque. 

I wish only the best for Ms. Abramson. She did some incredible work while at the Times, including winning eight Pulitzers as executive editor. Though the circumstances around her exit are unfortunate (and perhaps for her, heart-wrenching) I hope it continues an honest dialogue about gender inequality in the workplace.   

Photo by Peter Yang for New York Magazine.   


This hilarious Daily Show clip pretty much sums up the double standard in our culture: