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Jill Abramson Fired Because of Sexism?

The Former Executive Editor Ousted from The New York Times



Jill Abramson giving the commencement speech at Wake Forest University 19 May 2014

Getty Images

Jill Abramson’s sudden dismissal as executive editor of The New York Times last week has prompted much speculation.

Abramson has had a storied career in journalism. The native New Yorker is a Harvard alum who cut her teeth at publications such at The American Lawyer and the Wall Street Journal. She joined the Times in 1997 and swiftly moved up the ranks, working as enterprise editor, Washington editor, and then Washington bureau chief. Abramson was promoted to managing editor in 2003 and ultimately executive editor in 2011. In addition to her years at various newspapers, she also had a successful career as a book author. (Source).

The veteran journalist’s career at the nation’s top newspaper came to an abrupt end on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 after less than three years as executive editor of the Times.

Conflicting reports exist as to why Abramson was fired. Some reports indicate that her demeanor in the newsroom was “brusque,” “polarizing,” and even “mercurial,” language that on the one hand, is frequently used to describe women in leadership, but on the other hand, if true, would explain the alleged tensions regarding her administration. Politico has reported that, “New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger fired executive editor Jill Abramson after concluding that she had misled both him and chief executive Mark Thompson during her effort to hire a new co-managing editor.” She also apparently bumped heads higher ups in the Times’ leadership and her successor, Dean Baquet, who had served as managing editor of the newspaper.

An apparently large source of conflict was around pay. Like so many women in the workforce, it seems that Jill Abramson was concerned that she was being paid far less than her male colleagues. Ken Auletta reports in The New Yorker that, “As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to [Bill] Keller’s [her predecessor’s] salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman.” Forbes reports that Abramson’s “compensation included stock grants and the paper’s stock had risen during her tenure,” so it is possible that Abramson’s total compensation was in fact more than $559,000.  Yet, by that same token, Keller’s total compensation was undoubtedly more than $559,000 as well. To be clear, Abramson’s former boss, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the Times, has publicly denounced the notion that she was unfairly compensated, although his claims have been met with a level of skepticism.

The ramifications of Abramson’s firing go beyond her singular career. In The New Republic, Rebecca Traister laments that “the depression I feel about her ugly departure stems from a larger sense of futility regarding what many refer to as ‘the glass cliff.’ It’s a description of an increasingly common circumstance: what happens when people who’ve long been sidelined from power finally get a chance at prominent jobs, but only when the power and possibility of those positions has eroded. See also: Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, evening news anchors; Mary Barra, CEO of GM; and Barack Obama, president of the United States. Oh, and: Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of The New York Times.” (Baquet, an African American man with his own impressive credentials, is stepping into a powder keg of a role, and may, in fact, be facing his own precarious future at the Times).

It seems as though Abramson was in a catch-22 of sorts. She was expected to be forthright, capable, and a no holds barred leader, but also seems to have been penalized for such behavior. As Talking Points Memo notes, “Women, particularly ambitious women, often feel like they’re in a no-win situation when it comes to climbing the career ladder. They’re told to ‘lean in’ and stop being afraid to ask for what we want…But what happens when women follow all this advice to lean in, hold their heads high, make demands, and fake it ‘til they make it? Well, a lot of women rightfully fear that they’ll be considered bitchy shrews. Women know that the very qualities that cause so many to see men as ‘powerful’ look like, well, pushiness when they manifest in women.”

Although Abramson was a top executive and was being compensated well above the average woman journalist, it seems she has run afoul of some of the same workplace discrimination that plagues so many workingwomen. Thus, even if the story of a well-heeled executive getting fired might seem worlds away from the lives of every day women, the fact of the matter is that the same sorts of tactics are used to keep women of varying socioeconomic circumstances far behind their male counterparts. And this should have lots of women’s attention.


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