Pushy women in the news business

Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, was fired on May 9. Why? While neither Abramson nor publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. gave much explanation, plenty of other people jumped in to offer explanations that centered on gender. The account that seemed best-informed came from Ken Auletta at The New Yorker:

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. ‘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.”

According to Auletta, Abramson also had clashed with Sulzberger over native advertising and the intrusion of the business side into the editorial side of the newspaper. (Auletta later updated his account, adding more details.)

Business Week chimed in:

“Irrespective of the specific circumstances in this case, such words as ‘abrasive,’ ‘pushy,’ and ‘brusque’ tend to irk professional women, who have come to recognize them from countless studies demonstrating that female leaders are almost always seen more negatively than male ones—a phenomenon also known as the competent-but-disliked dilemma.”

Forty-plus years ago, in my very first professional job, I insisted that a man turn in a report that was required by law, which he had skipped for years. He responded by calling me a “castrating bitch.” When I told friends, they asked whether I could have been more conciliatory and less aggressive.

Susan Glasser, now editor of Politico Magazine and formerly editor of the Washington Post Outlook section, Roll Call, and Foreign Policy magazine, described her own present-day experience and that of Natalie Nougayréde, who recently resigned from Le Monde, protesting a plan to reduce her editorial authority. In Editing While Female, Glasser wrote:

“In the end, just about every single thing that has been said about Jill Abramson and Natalie Nougayrède was also said about me. … When I hear Abramson called pushy or Nougayrède called uncommunicative, it’s with a shudder of recognition. You can’t get to greatness by enabling mediocrity; in male leaders, this is called having high standards and it is praised. Places like the New York TimesLe Monde and the Washington Post are not given to elevating editors—of any gender—who would accept anything other than the highest of standards. As in tough, demanding, challenging. But there’s no doubt that many find this off-putting and threatening from a certain kind of woman.”

A recent study of CEOs cited by Glasser found that women CEOs are more often forced out of office than men.

Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chavez wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

“And ‘bossy’ is just the beginning. As girls mature, the words may change, but their meaning and impact remain the same. Women who behave assertively are labeled ‘aggressive,’ ‘angry,’ ‘shrill’ and ‘overly ambitious.’ Powerful and successful men are often well liked, but when women become powerful and successful, all of us—both men and women—tend to like them less.”

Though I haven’t been a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and the idea of banning words (banbossy.com) seems silly, she is right. The attitudes behind the words remain real and damaging to all of us.

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