After Jill Abramson was fired as executive editor of the New York Times Wednesday, NYT editor Lexi Mainland tweeted, “Whatever the reasons behind today’s @nytimes changes, newsrooms have a ways to go with regards to women, not least of which NYT.”
The narrative around Abramson’s dismissal — for what publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called “an issue with management in the newsroom” — quickly coalesced around the debate over whether it happened because she was “pushy,” “difficult,” and “mercurial.”
Re/Code Co-Executive Editor Kara Swisher compared Abramson’s situation to some of the criticism leveled at Apple’s VP of Worldwide Communications Katie Cotton, who recently left her job.
“When [Cotton] left all the words around her were ‘evil queen,’ ‘Apple PR witchy witch,’” Swisher said. “Men were doing it and it was very disturbing and extreme to me. Words do count… If you use easy words for people and categorize them in clichés you’re stupid and lazy.”
Jess Bennett, a columnist at Time.com and a contributing editor at Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation, said that while she had no inside knowledge of what happened with Abramson, she knew “that a lot of women (and men) admired her. I also know that female bosses get judged more harshly in general — and, if you believe a new study, those in chief executive positions are more frequently fired. Was that the case with Jill? I don’t know. But it’s a question worth raising.”
After hearing the news of Abramson’s dismissal, Nitasha Tiku, the editor of Gawker’s Valleywag, reexamined stories about Abramson’s management, in particular a 2011 profile of Abramson from the New Yorker that compared her managerial style to that of her predecessor Howell Raines. In a comment on a Gawker post, Tiku wrote, “Reading through the profile and the Politico piece, it’s impossible not to wonder if the criticisms against her would feel like mark against her if she was a man. The adjectives used to describe her are watered down versions of the way Raines was described. Why tolerate that from him but not her?”
Arianna Huffington praised Abramson in a statement provided to BuzzFeed (which she also provided to Politico):
Jill is not only a great journalist but she brought to her tenure at the Times both this passion for quality journalism and her understanding of the need for the Times to evolve. I remember how impressed I was that she came to the HuffPost office four years ago to absorb what we were doing. She brought a lot of wisdom and perspective to both her work and her life. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.
The Nation Editor-In-Chief Katrina vanden Heuvel saluted Abramson for being “powerful” and said that Abramson’s firing is a sign that more women need to be in leadership roles.
“I think she’s a very fine journalist and a strong editor who nurtured a lot of writers and saw significant changes,” vanden Heuvel said.
She also emphasized Abramson’s hiring of Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor and the first woman in that position, as a noteworthy accolade. Just this week, Sullivan brought up issues of gender imbalance at the Times. Her column reported results from a Women’s Media Center study that said among the top 10 most widely circulated papers, the Times had the biggest gender gap, “with 69 percent of bylines going to men.”
(Sullivan declined to comment for this story and said that the post speaks for itself.)
Elizabeth Spiers, the former editor in chief of The New York Observer, was not surprised by Sullivan’s piece and said that the Times’ gender gap was caused in part by a lack of staff turnover.
“The staff is so entrenched,” at the Times, she said. “Much of the leadership is white and male because much of the paper was white and male a couple of decades ago and a lot of those people haven’t left. So they’d have to be far more aggressive about hiring women to change that byline ratio, and I don’t sense that is SO much of a priority for them that they’d, for instance, impose a specific ratio for new hires that skewed overtly female — i.e., for every man we hire, we hire two women.”
A real change to the Times’ gender balance, she said, would have to come from Sulzberger directly so that it would insulate against any potential blowback.
Ann Friedman, the former executive editor of GOOD magazine and current columnist for NYMag.com, also addressed the risks of backfires, specifically with regards to Abramson’s alleged inquiries into her pay.
“Yes, part of the problem is that many women don’t feel empowered to negotiate on their own behalf,” she said. “But the flip side is that when women do negotiate or stick up for themselves, they’re often seen as difficult to work with. Whereas men are just seen as… negotiating and sticking up for themselves. It’s why women are perpetually confused about how to project their competence and confidence at work without being disliked for it or seen as ‘abrasive.’”