New York Times fires Jill Abramson: Was it sexism?

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the matter of The New York Times‘ firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, because 1) so much has been written about it already, and 2) I wasn’t there, so what do I know? But I have been reflecting on my years in the newspaper business, working for both male and female bosses, and certain things have fallen into place.

Yes, women and men are treated differently in newsrooms. Although goalposts have been uprooted, not just moved, there remains a double standard, not just in the newspaper industry, but at all workplaces.

In my first job at a daily newspaper in central Illinois, I remember a male colleague telling me – confidentially – that he had just been given a raise because he and his wife had a baby. I didn’t even know how to respond. Should I have said, “Congratulations! You’re going to need more income” or “That’s so unfair”? (“That totally sucks” was an uncommon term in the 1970s.) Was my work now worth less than his? Of course, with more responsibilities at home, he didn’t have to cover the same amount of evening meetings that I did.

At the same paper, a friend who had graduated college with me and I started work on the same day. He covered the police beat. I wrote features and wedding notices. Now, to be certain, his talents tended toward straight news, while mine were feature writing and editing. Still, we were pigeonholed pretty early.

When I worked for The Milwaukee Journal, now The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in the early 1980s, I had the unenviable task of filling in on the overnight desk while the usual editor was on vacation. It meant starting about 10 p.m. and working until 6 a.m. – not the best shift for a morning person like me. The reason given was “Well, you’re single. You can’t expect a married guy to do this.” At the same paper, a group of women reporters got together for lunch once a month to talk about issues of sexism in the media. I remember one discussion about the double standard that Margaret Thatcher faced as prime minister, since the press always zeroed in on what she was wearing. With obsessions about Hillary Clinton’s clothing, have we really changed that much? And the men at the paper, especially those in sports, made fun of these monthly lunches.

I have worked for both men and women editors over the years. Some of both the men and women were truly awful, and some of both were a joy to work for and taught me a lot. I have been a boss, too, of both men and women (full disclosure: not a role I particularly enjoyed). I think I can say with certainty that I treated both genders equally, although I can’t say that’s how they treated me. I have friends who are women physicians who told me that during their residencies, they had to “turn themselves into a man” to get by.

So what about Jill Abramson? According to various news reports, she found out that she was being paid less than a predecessor, and that she had earned less as a managing editor than a deputy managing editor under her. Unfair? Yes. Are there extenuating circumstances? Most likely, including the tenure at that particular paper.

More disturbing are the reports that her “style” is what the Times execs objected to. Politico Magazine Editor Susan B. Glasser wrote an eye-opening piece called “Editing While Female: Field notes from one of journalism’s most dangerous jobs,” in which she comments on the story from her viewpoint. Glasser was pushed out as national news editor of the Washington Post. A good friend, Natalie Nougayrede, was forced to quit her job as editor-in-chief of Le Monde.

“This has happened to just about every woman I know who has dared to take up a highly visible leadership position in our great but troubled news organizations. Including me,” Glasser wrote. “We like to pretend it’s different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter the glass ceiling into thousands of pieces. But it’s not true. There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it’s a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers, category-defying outliers who almost invariably still face a comeuppance.”

We heard a lot of these same issues in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. The same kind of characteristics that win points for male bosses (boldness, authority, strength) are detracting in female bosses (bitchiness, pushiness, bossiness).

A recent cover story in the May issue of The Atlantic headlined “The Confidence Gap,” by TV journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, described a truth that too many women probably realize: Too many women lack self-assurance, and men have too much. Even if it’s not deserved.

Let’s face it, women: Some odds are still stacked against us. Kay and Shipman offer some advice – to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. Even when those actions show our “temperament.”

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