Why Jill Abramson’s Firing Triggers Women’s Worst Fears About Sexism

The New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson attends the 2010 Matrix Awards presented by the New York Women in Communications at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday, April 19, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
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An event as big and sudden as the firing of Jill Abramson from her position as the executive editor at the New York Times is bound to have a whirlwind of gossip, speculation, and accusations swirling around it. This is particularly true since Abramson seems to have done a fine job as executive editor — not flawless, of course, but the paper continued to be a source of top notch investigative journalism — and may have been done in by forces beyond her control, namely the declining profitability of newspapers in the era of online media. As she’s also the first woman to hold the job in the paper’s history, accusations of sexism against publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., began immediately.

While it’s impossible at this time to determine exactly what’s going on with the Abramson firing, there are some damning pieces of evidence to uphold the charge of sexist discrimination. “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,” Ken Auletta reports at the New Yorker. It’s an account confirmed by David Folkenflik.

If that was part of the issue, Think Progress points out, not only is this sexism, but it could be actionable. Though, as Josh Marshall at TPM suggests, since Abramson accepted a settlement already, the lawsuit gambit is off the table. All of which means that this will probably remain in the realm of speculation for a long time, at least until some enterprising journalist writes an in-depth investigate report that puts the issue to bed, as Abramson herself did with a 1995 book that basically proved that Clarence Thomas did, in fact, sexually harass Anita Hill.

In a way, though, the air of unknowing is making all this worse. Where lack of certainty exists, people will project their own worst anxieties on a situation to fill the void. (See: The endless online speculation over the Solange/Jay-Z video.) And women have a lot to be anxious about.

Abramson replacement Dean Baquet

Among the heavily gendered critiques of Abramson that emerged during her tenure and bubbled to the surface again after news of her firing was that she was “pushy,” “brusque,” and “aloof” — qualities frequently praised in men, especially those in leadership roles, but chastised in women. You can’t escape the irony that her replacement as executive editor, Dean Baquet, a man and the first African American to hold the paper’s top editor slot, is known for his kinder, gentler approach with colleagues and underlings.

Women, particularly ambitious women, often feel like they’re in a no-win situation when it comes to climbing the career ladder. They’re told to “lean in” and stop being afraid to ask for what we want. They’re told they’re holding themselves back because of a “confidence gap”, and that all they need to do to get ahead in life is to start acting as bold and confident as men do. They’re told they don’t make as much as men because they don’t demand higher salaries. Or worse, that they’re “choosing” to make less than men by applying themselves less at the office.

But what happens when women follow all this advice to lean in, hold their heads high, make demands, and fake it ‘til they make it? Well, a lot of women rightfully fear that they’ll be considered bitchy shrews. Women know that the very qualities that cause so many to see men as “powerful” look like, well, pushiness when they manifest in women. In fact, research confirms this fear: Following all that advice to act like a man can backfire and cause your boss to apply misogynist stereotypes to you that you will never get past. So the lame advice women get is to be pushy and confident sometimes and demure and retreating at others. How to tell the difference? Sorry, no one can help you there. You just have to know. Good luck, ladies.

And that’s why the Jill Abramson firing is having ripple effects outside of the immediate circles of media people talking about themselves and rich people gossiping about the lives of other rich people. This story, particularly in its current state of more-guessing-than-knowing, speaks to the deep, immoveable, and totally realistic fear many women have that there’s nothing they can do to overcome sexism in the workplace. They worry that they can lean in, do the dance, do the work, calibrate themselves, obsess over reading a room and figuring out the exact dosage of femininity required to work it, and it still won’t matter. Women worry that the single word “pushy” can destroy everything they’ve worked for. Abramson’s story suggests that they may not be paranoid to think it.

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villian who can be followed @amandamarcotte.

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