“The unbelievable thing is that there actually is no ‘cause’ for this — no single thing, nothing,” one of Jill Abramson’s New York Times colleagues said about the former executive editor’s abrupt ouster yesterday. Actually, it’s quite believable. Amid the speculation about pay disparities and newsroom drama, this quote — “no ‘cause’” — strikes me as the most plausible description of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s decision to fire Abramson. A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.
From the outside, depending on your point of view, Abramson’s firing was either sexist retribution or a gender-blind decision to ax an ineffective boss. But from the inside, incidents like this are never so clear. 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’ internalized notions of how women should behave. I’ve asked these questions about my own career: Am I struggling because I’m not playing the game well enough, or because the game is rigged against me? Like Abramson, I’ve been a top-level editor who’s had trouble getting along with male bosses — so much so that a friend once offered to purchase acting classes for me so I’d be better equipped to “play nice.” If you’d asked me then, I would have said that learning how to get people on board with your ideas is an art, one that requires work to master no matter what your gender. I also would have told you that I was the only woman on a senior leadership team of more than ten people.
In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you. Abramson exhibited this tension: She was unapologetic about her power and firm about her decisions, but she was also working with a coach to improve her management skills — presumably in response to complaints, such as those aired anonymously in Politico last year, that she was unpopular, unapproachable, condescending, brusque. Even though she and many outsiders recognized the double standards in the article, she later told Newsweek it made her cry.
I’m sure those quotes stung on a personal level, but they were also a grave professional threat. Some of the most successful people in the world profess not to care what others think of them. But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the “only one” in the room, not caring is not an option. This is not because all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues; it’s because those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman's job performance. Women are sometimes advised to keep a low profile and let their work “speak for itself.” But in Abramson’s case, eight Pulitzers did not speak loudly enough. Revenue growth did not speak loudly enough. Successful new digital products did not speak loudly enough.
Sulzberger cited “an issue with management” as his reason for firing Abramson. Any journalist knows that issue is one of those nebulous, throwaway words that can be a stand-in for just about anything. Or no single thing. When such charges are distilled to actual behavior or examples, they never seem to rise to the level of a fireable offense. Listing Abramson’s management missteps last year, Politico reported that “she would regularly question top editors about why the Times did not have certain stories.” Gee. Isn’t that … her job?
Abramson’s experience suggests that, for many women, the confidence gap is not that they have less faith in their abilities than men. It’s that (unlike men) they’re expected to downplay their confidence in order to seem nonthreatening and likable — or face professional consequences. This emotional labor is the unwritten responsibility in every woman’s job description. It’s the reality that clouds everything from Sheryl Sandberg’s can-do manifestos to advice columns about asking for a raise. I’m as guilty of eliding this as any writer who chronicles gender and race disparities in the workplace. I, like most women, want to feel like I’m in control of my professional destiny. It’s not fun to acknowledge that there are some deep-seated cultural problems that no tips can circumvent and no amount of cheerleading can fix.
All of this was exacerbated for Abramson because she was the first. The first woman, or the only woman, is never just one woman. She’s everyone, both an outlier and a trend. And she’s profiled accordingly, scrutinized by both the public and her bosses. It took a major plagiarism scandal to get Sulzberger to notice that former executive editor Howell Raines was widely reviled in the newsroom, but Sulzberger was on high alert about Abramson’s emotional-approval ratings from the very start.
Abramson isn’t the only “first” to lose her historic post this week. The first female editor of France’s Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrède, who had only been in the role for a year, announced yesterday that she’s stepping down after members of the staff protested changes she'd planned for the newspaper. Abramson’s firing also has echoes of last year’s ouster of Janet Robinson, the CEO who implemented the Times’ now-lauded paywall system, who was derisively called “the Nanny” and “Howell on heels” — a reference to the widely disliked Raines — by colleagues. Once you start looking, Abramson starts feeling like less of a “first” or an outlier.
“Maybe the grievances against her are justified?” some guy tweeted at me last night in the wake of the news. Maybe. I didn’t reply because I’ve never worked for Jill Abramson and I don’t know. And because 140 characters is not enough space to explain that "justified" can mean different things to different people. With no "cause" and no single thing to explain her exit, whether or not Abramson was difficult for a boss or whether she was difficult for a woman is probably a question that even she’s struggling to answer.
Most Viewed Stories
Donald Trump Spent the Morning After the Debate Fat-Shaming Miss Universe, Again
Hillary Clinton’s Sickest Debate Burns
Former Miss Universe Becomes U.S. Citizen So She Can Vote Against Trump
2009 Called — It Wants Its Vogue-Versus-Bloggers Fight Back.
Area Woman Interrupted by Man 25 Times in 26 Minutes
22 Intimate Lost Photos of Marilyn Monroe
The Fashion Executive Who Doesn’t Wear Underwear on Dates
25 Famous Women on Being Alone
Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber Are Separating After 11 Years Together
Uh-Oh, Is Rob Kardashian Feuding With Kylie Jenner?
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesThe Novelist Disguised As a Housewife
Shirley Jackson wrote 17 books while raising four children — and she couldn't have had a successful career without them.Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.Santigold’s New Video Is the Result of a Spontaneous Run-in With Kara Walker
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Spotted Together Again, Love Might Be Real
They could be back together ahh!Teen, Forced to Go on Vacation With Her Family, Calls 911
The logical decision.Report: Hearst Fired Seventeen EIC Michelle Tan During Her Maternity Leave
Tan had been at the magazine for about two years.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.
That’s one way to do it.Don’t Mess This Up, Mischa Barton
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.Miles Teller Is Still Upset About Being Called a Dick
He wants to set the record straight.Why Parents Shouldn’t Talk About Weight With Their Teens
New guidelines seek to banish weight talk.