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Jill Abramson's Firing Shows the Insidious New Way Sexism Happens in the Modern Workplace

Brad Barket/Getty Images Entertainment

In her book The Good Girls Revolt, Lynn Povich, a woman who worked at Newsweek both before and after the successful 1970 lawsuits filed by female employees against the company for discrimination, details what the office used to look like before they spoke up. The editorial staff, as at most major newspapers and magazines, was split between “girls” who were fact checkers and the men in all other editorial roles. Female researchers were condescendingly called “the Dollies.” Writers and editors were all men. 

In addition to structural sexism, at Newsweek (and likely elsewhere) there was unacceptable workplace behavior like men commenting on women’s breasts and butts, kissing and touching them, and even letting the women know that they should sleep with them to getting ahead. Some men stalked and berated women who they wanted to sleep with. The editor-in-chief at the time, Osborn “Oz” Elliott, first responded to the women’s lawsuit by saying, “The fact that most researchers at Newsweek are women and that virtually all writers are men stems from a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.”

That tradition has been rightly overthrown. There is still plenty of sexual harassment and blatant wage discrimination—consider the details of a recent lawsuit from female employees of the country’s largest jewelry store—but sexism in the workplace today usually is much more subtle and underhanded. The alleged treatment of Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times until her ouster this week, is a prime example. 

Ken Auletta at the New Yorker reported from anonymous sources that Abramson was partly ousted because of inquiries she made about unequal pay. He wrote that Abramson’s starting salary as executive editor in 2011 was $475,000, while her male predecessor Bill Keller made $559,000 that year. But it was only elevated to $503,000, and then again to $525,000, after she protested. She also made less, according to Auletta’s sources, as managing editor than a man who worked below her, and she made $100,000 less as Washington bureau chief than the man who took over the position. The Times argues that her pay was still “broadly comparable” and that all forms of compensation, such as bonuses and stock options that we don’t know about, have to be taken into consideration. 

A wage gap wouldn’t be very surprising, given that female editors on the whole make nearly $8,000 less a year than male ones and gender wage disparities follow women all the way to the top of their organizations. But it’s other parts of the story that illustrate some of the more subtle forces women are up against in today’s workplace. From the moment he hired her, Arther Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the company, was “worried about her managerial style,” according to Auletta. Sulzberger viewed her as “difficult, high-handed, and lacking in finesse in her management of people at the paper,” he writes. His concerns grew, but not necessarily over actual missteps, although there were some. It seems it was that, as Auletta writes, “Her personality was an issue for him… Her style sometimes grated.” 

Sulzberger isn’t the only one who reportedly felt this way about Abramson. Dean Baquet, who has taken over her role as executive editor, felt undermined when Abramson moved to hire someone at the same level as him without telling him. But he went further in his complaints to Sulzberger, saying, again according to Auletta, that her management style could be “too abrupt and belligerent.” Other coworkers have anonymously characterized her in similar ways, saying she is “brusque,” stubborn, and “impossible.” (It of course depends who you ask: Amanda Hess at Slate spoke to some of the women who worked below Abramson, who heaped praise on her work and management style.)

It’s much harder for a woman being accused of being an abrasive manager to be able to figure out what of that is truth and what of that is sexism. It’s not nearly as clear-cut as being told that you can’t have a writer job because you’re a woman or being pinched on the ass as you hand in your work. But the impact is still one of holding talented women back. As Auletta himself notes, “Abrasiveness has never been a firing offense at the Times.” And it is rarely one in broader journalism, which is known for cantankerous editorial personalities. But when a woman shows these characteristics, aggressively pursuing what she sees as the best course with perhaps less “finesse” than is expected of her, she can alienate her boss. It seems that contributed at least in part to the unceremonious firing of the first woman to lead a major paper’s newsroom.

Abramson isn’t the only victim of this new sexism. Most women at work will have to navigate it. One paper surveyed research from a number of fields and found that women can suffer “social and financial backlash when they behave assertively,” including by asking for more money. As sociologist Marianne Cooper writes, psychologists have “repeatedly found that women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.” They also suffer these penalties for being perceived to violate the gender stereotypes of being nurturing and group-oriented, instead of individualistic and competitive. Ambitious women who use the same tactics that men use to get ahead will still be half as likely to advance up the ladder. 

Even Abramson’s efforts to correct the other sexism she reportedly experienced, that of disparate pay, seems to have tripped the personality wires. Auletta writes that raising the issue by bringing in a lawyer “seemed wrongheaded” to the men above her, “both on its merits and in terms of her approach,” which was perceived as “combative.” There's some dispute about whether this was one of the causes of Abramson's abrupt dismissal, but there's no dispute that Abramson’s management style—which resembled that of many male managers in journalism and elsewhere—was seen as inappropriate by men working both above and below here.

This is what makes today’s sexism so insidious: It’s about feelings and impressions created by women’s behavior, not red lines drawn between men and women. The atmosphere is less one of strict barriers and more of a general fog of bias. You can't always put your finger on it, but that doesn't mean it's not there.