'Pushy' Abramson and the Times 'pay gap'

Jill Abramson at a White House event in February 2014. Jill Abramson's name was removed from the New York Times masthead shortly after her firing was announced

Did a gender pay gap contribute to the abrupt dismissal of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson?

Ken Auletta of the New Yorker writes that there were a number of contributing factors that led Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr to grow frustrated with, and eventually dismiss, the woman he chose for the newspaper's top job in 2011.

One was a conflict Ms Abramson had with her managing editor, Dean Baquet, over the creation of an editorial position overseeing the paper's digital ventures that may or may not have been subordinate to Baquet. Another was continued disagreements with Times president Mark Thompson over business involvement in the paper's editorial operations, such as the use of "native advertising" - that is, adverts crafted to look like editorial content.

But one episode in particular cited by Auletta has generated a firestorm of attention.

Auletta writes:

Start Quote

Abramson had drawn criticism for her sometimes harsh personality, but certainly it was no harsher than the treatment handed her by former patrons”

End Quote John Harris and Hadas Gold Politico

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.

Not only that, Auletta writes, she also learned that when she was managing editor, one of her male deputies made more than she did.

Ms Abramson confronted her superiors about the disparity. The pay gap was "closed", but Auletta quotes one close associate as saying that the confrontation "may have fed into the management's narrative that she was 'pushy', a characterisation that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect".

On Thursday afternoon Mr Sulzeberger sent a memo to the Times staff refuting Auletta's allegations:

It is simply not true that Jill's compensation was significantly less than her predecessors. Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors... Compensation played no part whatsoever in my decision that Jill could not remain as executive editor. Nor did any discussion about compensation. The reason - the only reason - for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill's management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment.

If Auletta's account is true (and a second reporter has independently confirmed the story), it would have "ghoulishly retro implications", writes the New Republic's Rebecca Traister.

She calls Ms Abramson's dismissal, in which she did not attend the announcement of her departure and had her name quickly removed from the paper's online masthead, "among the most harsh and humiliating I've ever seen play out in the media's recent history".

Traister compares Abramson's sacking with the 2003 dismissal of former executive editor Howell Raines, who also was known to be a difficult boss and presided over the Jayson Blair story-fabrication scandal. Mr Raines, she notes, was feted as he left and praised by Mr Sulzberger.

She writes:

Start Quote

Multiple studies have found that women are more likely to be brought into leadership roles when the outlook is bad”

End Quote Bryce Covert ThinkProgress

Observing the sharp contrast between this kinder, gentler transition and the cold glee with which Abramson was tossed on her ass today made me hope that eventually we will learn that she was stealing from the company cash register. Because that's pretty much the only crime I can think of that would merit as swift and brutal an exit for a woman who - good or bad at her job, or, more likely, like most bosses in the world, some combination of the two - represented an undeniably historic first in journalism and at the New York Times.

Politico's John Harris and Hadas Gold agree that Ms Abramson's firing was "uncommonly bloody".

"Abramson had drawn criticism for her sometimes harsh personality, but certainly it was no harsher than the treatment handed her by former patrons," they write.

They say that the manner of her departure, as well as her position as the first female top editor of the Times, are among the reasons the firing will "ricochet longer and more intensely than just another job shuffle atop a newspaper struggling to reinvent itself in a new era of media".

Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams writes that "it's entirely possible Abramson was just a bad boss. Women can be bad bosses too".

The language used to describe Ms Abramson, however - particularly words like "pushy" - "still matter tremendously", she writes.

"'Pushy', like 'bossy', carries with it the loaded judgement of unladylike behaviour," she argues. "'Pushy', unlike, say, 'incompetent' or even 'difficult', says 'unfeminine'. It's a word frequently applied to behaviour in women that might better be described as 'persistent' when done by a man."

Ms Abramson may have been fired for legitimate differences of opinion, Williams writes. But the way Abramson was described "strikes a depressingly familiar chord to far too many of us who've ever advocated for ourselves and been dismissively branded as loudmouthed troublemakers".

On the right, the troubles at the Times - considered a bastion of the liberal media - have been met with unrestrained schadenfreude.

"The very same people who brought us the war on women are now tearing themselves apart like the 'Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites' in the Valley of Beracah," writes RedState's Erick Erickson. "There is a rich irony in this."

With her dismissal, Ms Abramson joins a growing list of female executives forced out of top jobs - a fate they are more likely to suffer than their male counterparts, writes ThinkProgress's Bryce Covert:

Part of the problem seems to be that women tend to be brought in from the outside (Abramson spent most of her previous career at the Wall Street Journal) and they may only be brought in to clean up when things are getting messy. This phenomenon is called the glass cliff: Multiple studies have found that women are more likely to be brought into leadership roles when the outlook is bad.

Since writing his New Yorker piece, Auletta has made several public statements emphasising that the pay dispute was only a contributing factor to a larger clash between Ms Abramson and her publisher. But it shouldn't be surprising that it has become the dominant topic of conversation.

The truth, writes New York magazine's Ann Friedman, is that we may never know the real reason why Ms Abramson was fired - and that's a reality women have to deal with in "almost any workplace".

"Women never know whether they're being met with a hostile reaction because of their performance - something that they can address and change - or because of both male and female colleagues' internalised notions of how women should behave," she writes.

Although "most successful people in the world profess not to care what others think of them," she writes, that's not a choice for women in leadership positions. "Colleagues' gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman's job performance," she says.

As Traister concludes in her New Republic article:

The departure of Jill Abramson is a bigger and far grimmer story about a uniquely powerful woman, whose rise and whose firing will now become another depressingly representative chapter in the story of women's terribly slow march toward social, professional and economic parity.



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    21. Networking still results in most high level placements - took 3+ years for my last President/CEO appointment as the incumbent had to be proved ineffectual, which takes time in today's litigious environment. 'Who you know' still rules with owners/shareholders and it will always be that way! Also, intimate industry/client base experience is always the clincher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Arthur Sulzberger Jr may be the problem by not following chain of command so to speak. People like that are terrible leaders because they often reassign people without talking to the manager of the unit - male or female. With the economy in the dumpster, fear for job will cause the person to obey- and then get in trouble with their manager because another project is not done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Arthur Sulzberger Jr anything but Junior when it comes to greed and clever showing. Taking in a woman, all against his real liking, was a ploy to show himself and his institution as a progressive equal importunity employer. Meanwhile he cheated on equal pay and expected her to allow for under the table equality of decisions by her male subordinates. I do not think that he was planing to keep her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    20. marieinaustin- no they really don't get it -its nothing to do with stealing ideas - sales dept. had a problem keeping female clerks because of him.

    18. Chris A - its still a problem - more in those with the big college degrees then not - big corporations have no clue what goes on at the actual business level - where you can get a misfire of hires via networking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    16. USAperson "if a woman says something in a meeting looks to her male co-worker and says "what's she saying"and gets it when the male co-worker repeats it word for word?"

    It means they like your idea, so they distract you by belittling you, and then steal your idea. Been there. You have to be very careful where, how, & to whom you submit ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The Times was once the scourge of the dishonest bully. In recent years it will be remembered for cheerleading the invasion of Iraq, and now for its cowardly treatment of the entire Snowden issue. Not to mention the mealy mouthed approach to the liars Brennan, Clapper, Alexander and Rogers. Abramson has to take some of the blame.

    Is it not possible she was indeed unacceptably pushy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    16. pretty grubby companies you have worked for? Neanderthals have no place in today's senior management ranks - a given that some owner/shareholders are still not evolved (Donald Sterling)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    13. Your closing notion is fair, however, POTUS was not elected because he was black and Hilary will not be elected because she is a woman. Wendy Davis has a hard climb in redneck Texas but she did cave on open carry. These people get elected by a combination of political influence and money! Its easy to sway the US voter with enough pointed TV ads - democracy in action (sic).

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Ever work with a male in management who, if a woman says something in a meeting looks to her male co-worker and says "what's she saying" and gets it when the male co-worker repeats it word for word?

    Worked with one who was a salesman-wondered how much he cost the company in not being able to take an order direct from a female buyer - unless she had a male secretary to translate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    My question is: How did Abramson not know the previous editors' salaries/compensation when she was hired? Why did she accept the position for less?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Abramson has said no Brandies as should any self respecting indvidual after they appeased extremists in the case of Hirsi Ali

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I couldn't care less about the NYT, but this is how a man with no experience except good speech gets elected POTUS because he's black. This is how Wendy Davis becomes governor of Texas or Hillary Clinton becomes POTUS. At all levels, regardless of race and gender, people should be hired (and elected) for their qualifications (or proven record/position) and paid equally. One level affects another.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Another disappointing example of why there are so few women in leadership positions in the workplace, the gender discrimination they face and pay inequality. Despite many companies statements around equality in the workplace, the reality during the day to day is quite different and comes down to individual managers and their unconscious biases. I see these scenarios played out daily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Who really cares? The NYT is a waste of paper and has declined in any kind of credibility over the past decade (or longer). And why are we up at arms over one woman's firing when millions of other Americans have been jobless for years.

    Who cares about this story?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In the litigious environment of New York city a wrongful termination suit would be an appropriate instrument for Ms. Abramson to seek vindication. If the New York Times wants to shut down any discussions of pay disparity then, in the interest of transparency, it should disclose the pay packages of Mr. Keller, Ms. Abramson and Mr. Boquet, her successor, at ALL positions within its organization.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I think the attitude that men have towards women and vice-versa is deep-rooted and part of our being. We are comfortable and happy with sex-appropriate roles and unhappy in those that aren't.

    Some women are successful bosses, though (e.g. Marjorie Scardino). She is noted for running a happy team and, I might guess, by having feminine rather than aggressive skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    ref #4

    True, we are enjoying the blatant hypocricy of the NYT who demands equal pay for equal work with no other factors considered. Question do Gail collins and Paul Krugman get paid the same. they both write on the editorial page?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I am 100 per cent in support of delivering equal pay, but...
    perhaps the dire decline in the newspaper industry in recent years means there is less money available to pay staff. Just a thought

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    There are many fields where the boss might earn less than his or her employees - for example, many companies pay their top salespeople at least as well as their top managers, star football players can earn more than club management, and a popular stylist might make more than the salon manager. It's an issue when someone MAKES it so, amplified by media if race or gender differences exist...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "... we may never know the real reason why Ms Abramson was fired - and that's a reality women have to deal with in "almost any workplace".
    Trust Ms. Abramson has retained counsel for 'wrongful dismissal' and will take this bastion of male coercion to the-cleaners! Such nonsense will reverberate through the male-centric hierarchy's out there. The Taliban/GOP will offer no help in this fight!


Page 1 of 2


Elsewhere on the BBC

  • StudentsBull market

    Employers are snapping up students with this desirable degree


  • 3D model of Christ the Redeemer statueClick Watch

    Using drones to 3D map the famous Brazilian landmark Christ the Redeemer

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.