ColumnJill Abramson, The New York Times’ top dog, and first female executive editor, was fired.
We should have seen this coming. Jill ABRAmson. Bra is right there in her name!
As the scandal started to unfold, it seemed like a clear case of sexism at work. The New Yorker reported that the trouble for Abramson may have escalated when she found out that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor, were less what her male predecessor received.
An associate told the magazine that when she spoke up, it reinforced her reputation as “pushy,” a term used almost exclusively to talk about women.
Issues surrounding “significant” pay discrepancy have been widely disputed by the Times, and the New Yorker has since updated its report. But, what we’re left with is another “pushy” broad pushed out of the C-suite. And, so far, that seems to be a story that’s sticking.
The Times reportedly wanted her departure to be less dramatic than it has been, but Abramson insisted they fire her — because that’s what was happening. It was the truth and she wanted the truth to be out there. Pushy indeed! Now, because of social media and Abramson’s daughter, #pushy is now a hashtag, joining the ranks of #BanBossy.
As the scheduled keynote speaker at Wake Forest University’s graduation this week, Abramson had to do something all editors are familiar with: a rewrite. According to the Washington Post, a Wake Forest official said the original draft of her speech focused on the importance of media freedom.
While I imagine she wasn’t conceptualizing her topic in this way, it’s interesting to think about media freedom in terms of her right as a woman leading her field to run her newsroom — hard-assed news guys are legendary — as she saw fit.
All of this has gotten me thinking about my own experience in various editorial settings. So, in solidarity with Jill Abramson and women everywhere, I offer you this list of four anecdotes from my professional life between 2000 and today to illustrate that shit like this happens to the Jills of the world, and also to the Libbys.
1. As the Editor-In-Chief of a magazine, I worked directly for the publisher. He referred to me exclusively as “Girl.” When we disagreed about something, he would say, “Girl, you’re a cunt.” Sweet, right?
2. I once received this unsolicited performance review from a superior at an office party: “It’s not you I don’t like, it’s your face.” My read on this was that it was a version of, “Why don’t you smile?” which is something I hate. I was part of an opinionated, smart leadership team — consisting mainly of men — and many of us were quick with an eyeroll. As far as I know, I was the only one made to justify my physical reactions to conflict.
3. A publisher I worked for owed me three months’ pay. When I finally refused to stop working until I received said payment, he pointed out that the company wasn’t doing well and he had a wife and family to support. He kind of trailed off waiting for me, I think, to put my right to get paid to the side to support him in his plight as a big manly provider. This illustrates one of my favorite recurring sexism at work themes: the idea that women work for fun, not for money.
4. I worked for one media company where drinking heavily was just kind of what we all did on group outings. One night, I overheard a middle-aged male VP say this to a group of 20-something female employees: “I’m feeling kind of hand-jobby.”
What I learned from all of these experiences is that even when you’re working with primarily good people — which most of these guys actually were — gender bias sneaks in. In some cases, it punches you in the gut.
As leaders, we can’t laugh it off when we’re called a bitch for disagreeing with something, when we’re labeled as pushy or reprimanded for being too difficult.
When we are hired to lead, we must be allowed to be leaders.
I’m not an insider in the Jill Abramson scandal, and I am not saying that she was fired because she is a woman. I don’t know. But I do know that in her speech to the new graduates, her first public comment on her departure from the Times, she said to, “Show what you’re made of.”
Maybe her speech was actually about media freedom after all.
Related on EcoSalon