On Wednesday, The New York Times dismissed executive editor Jill Abramson and replaced her with Dean Baquet, the managing editor. Unusually for a high-profile media outlet making a big change in leadership, the Times didn’t attempt to characterize the shift as a mutual decision. The only real question was why Abramson was fired.
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In the Times, David Carr and Ravi Somaiya reported that publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. attributed the change to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” Others, including Ken Auletta at The New Yorker, have asked whether Abramson’s perceived “pushiness” and demand for pay equal to that of her male predecessor played a role in the shift.
“Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs,” Auletta writes. “‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”
The Times denied any significant disparity in pay.
“Jill’s total compensation as executive editor was not meaningfully less than Bill Keller’s, so that is just incorrect,” spokesperson Eileen Murphy wrote in an email to Business Insider. “Her pension benefit, like all Times employees, is based on her years of service and compensation. The pension benefit was frozen in 2009.”
What Is “Meaningfully Less”?
In another post, Auletta crunches some numbers:
“As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’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.”
A few weeks prior to her firing, Abramson brought in a lawyer to address the possibility that her pay was unequal to her predecessor’s. According to Auletta, Murphy initially characterized this as a “contributing factor” to her dismissal and “part of a pattern.” In a latter email, Murphy claimed that she said the “issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration” not a part of a pattern that directly lead to her firing.
“I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true,” Murphy wrote.
The Impossibility of Being a Likeable Female Leader
Gruff male editors are a pop cultural cliche, but at The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reminds us that female leaders are still expected to be likeable in a very specific, gendered way.
“If it’s true that Sulzberger and others were perturbed by Abramson’s ‘aggressive’ style, their dynamic is representative of a series of findings from management psychology which show that female leaders are disproportionately disliked for behaving forcefully,” Khazan writes.
That’s a big problem for women in charge: being a strong leader requires them to make tough, unpopular decisions, while being a female leader means that they can’t look aggressive while doing it.
Meanwhile, many experts attribute the gender wage gap at least in part to the fact that women don’t ask for more money. But if they’re going to be punished — perhaps even fired — for demanding equality in pay and for daring to do their jobs without softening their approach as a concession to perceptions of their gender, what’s the right answer?
In the end, we may never know if these or any other factors had a definitive hand in bringing about the end of Abramson’s tenure at the Times, but we do know this: until we can discuss a change in leadership without having to consider whether “unfeminine” behavior played a hand in a manager’s departure, we won’t truly be equal.
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The author of this post once worked for About.com, which was formerly owned by The New York Times.