Photo illustration by Chris Ritter
This is how former New York Times Company CEO Janet Robinson is described in a story in this week’s New York Magazine:
Robinson appeared to her co-workers to have little private life: She was unmarried, called her mother nearly every day from her office, and on weekends took home boxes of work. Though she made enough money to build a house in Newport, Rhode Island, she rarely went there. “She gave him the impression, ‘Don’t ever worry, Arthur, I’ve got this, this is my life,’ ” says a former Times executive who worked with her. “He needs a larger-than-life person around him who is going to tell him everything is okay… Robinson came to see herself as the paper’s caretaker, the adult in the room. (Some Times people privately referred to her as “the Nanny.”)
Robinson, who is 61, had worked her way up at the Times, eventually becoming publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s trusted lieutenant. But there’s something really depressing about the way she’s described here: as a workaholic spinster who, despite being the CEO of a huge company, is ultimately thought of as (and thought of herself as) a caretaker.
It seems like it was a role that she relished; whether or not she was good at it is debatable, but seeing one of the highest-ranking women in media described as a “nanny” — no matter how good or bad she was at her job — rankled me. Robinson is also described as controlling, manipulative and a little paranoid. As a woman who’s starting to assume roles of responsibility and management in media, I read this portrayal of Robinson as a cautionary tale, bringing to mind other workaholic spinster media bosses like Joan Crawford’s Amanda Farrow in the 1959 movie about book publishing, The Best of Everything. (The book by Rona Jaffe is excellent, too.)
Robinson and Amanda Farrow (or The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly) are related versions of a predictable female boss trope, and one that I’d like to see disappear. It practically goes without saying that no male boss has ever been referred to privately as a “nanny,” but women — through what I suspect is a combination of personality and subconscious external signals — often find themselves in these kinds of “caretaker” roles. They’re vital, important jobs, but they’re also jobs that seem to disproportionately go to women.
At magazines, it’s the managing editor job — one without which a magazine couldn’t exist, but also one that requires someone to constantly be harassing other writers and editors about getting their copy in, sending out contracts, paying freelancers, etc. — “making the trains run on time,” as I’ve heard this job described countless times. It can seem like a job that’s reminiscent of being a mom, but instead of a chores chart with gold stars, there’s an editorial calendar and an Excel spreadsheet of freelance agreements. (I recently winced when I saw a press release laud a female editor’s “meticulous organization” skills.)
For Janet Robinson, the implication is that her job became her family. That’s not a life that I want. But as I try to navigate the direction of my career, I find that there are few female role models whose lives — not just careers — I want to emulate. The issue is no longer “having it all”; Janet Robinson very consciously, it seems, chose not to “have it all,” if by “all” we mean a high-powered job, a husband and a family, though her version of “all” might be exactly what this article describes. It’s not mine, though.