Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired

By
Photo: POOL/Corbis

“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.