A lament on the axing of Jill Abramson

May 15, 2014

Jill Abramson

Yesterday, the three-year tenure of the New York Times’ first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, abruptly came to an end. No one is quite sure why it happened, but it seems pretty clear that being a woman had something to do with it.

It was either her pay (she found out it was less than her male predecessor, like most female editors, and asked for a raise), her management style (pushy, brusque, a lot of other words that only seem to be attributed to women in leadership roles), her (failed) attempt to appoint Janine Gibson as co-managing editor (which didn’t sit well with the now executive editor Dean Baquet), her proclivity toward giving interviews (as a young female journalist very interested in the Times’ first female editor, I’m offended), or some combination of the four.

What is clear is that the Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., didn’t just fire Abramson, he humiliated her (and not for the first time, Gabriel Sherman notes). This comes at a time when, whatever her faults navigating the paper’s internal politics, the paper is doing well. While at the helm, Abramson didn’t start any wars or harbor any plagiarists, Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson points out. Yet she was kicked to the curb with less dignity than any of her predecessors, seemingly because of… her personality? Her personality! You’d think the top brass knew something about her personality before she was given the job. (There’s also the Times’ poor digital performance, though Sulzberger has not said the two were related.)

Being well-liked isn’t traditionally a necessary condition for being an effective manager. But for whatever reason, conflicts with female managers have a tendency to become personal in a way that conflicts with male managers do not. People are annoyed, even enraged, by the actions of men who make decisions they don’t like. But they take personal offense, even show visceral hatred toward, female managers they do not agree with.

It’s hard to see a way in which this wasn’t the case with Abramson, based on the less-than-convincing evidence given that she deserved to be unceremoniously shoved out the door. Her predecessor, Bill Keller, is still a columnist at the Times. Howell Raines, who was fired after Jayson Blair was caught fabricating stories, left “with an address to the staff; his wife was present”, notes Rebecca Traister.

The New York Times appears to have wanted a woman at the top, without actually letting her be in charge. The message here is that women — even the most powerful woman in media — are meant to fall in line. When they don’t, they are dumped. End of story. Please don’t ask questions. Let’s move on.

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