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Jill Abramson's Firing Was About Gender. And Also Not About Gender.

Why we always ask the wrong questions about sexism

Chris Keane/Getty Images

When it comes to identity politics in America, we’re always asking the wrong questions. It happened when people talked about Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President of the United States. It happened when people talked about Christine Quinn’s run for Mayor of New York. And it’s been happening, more or less non-stop, as critics and reporters perform forensics on Jill Abramson’s 32 months as executive editor of The New York Times.

The stories are different, but the template remains the same. It’s one we developed in 2008, when Clinton couldn’t lose until she lost. In the wake of her exit from the race, the media erupted in stories that seemed to pivot on one simple question: Did Hillary lose because of sexism?

In certain intensely worded corners of the internet, the response was an unequivocal “yes.” In the Washington Post, Marie Cocco acknowledged Clinton’s “political blemishes” but argued that “the darker stain that has been exposed is the hatred of women that is accepted as a part of our culture.” On the opposing side was Christopher Hitchens, who wrote that Clinton’s “whole self-pitying campaign…has used the increasingly empty term sexism to mask the defeat of one of the nastiest and most bigoted candidacies in modern history.” MSNBC political correspondent Chuck Todd said definitively, “Clinton did not lose this because of sexism.”

These exchanges were maddening, mostly because they turned on such a flawed premise: that there was one clear answer to one clear question.

Reality was far messier than that. Hillary Clinton lost in 2008 for a host of reasons, including an abysmal campaign strategy, an exceptionally compelling opponent, an initial unwillingness to sell herself as a history-making women’s leader, the difficulty of striking an awkward balance between toughness and likeability, the fact that her last name was Clinton, and, yes, because as a female candidate she encountered some direct sexism. 

Officially, none but the last of these reasons have to do with gender, nor as a whole do they support the charge that sexism doomed her campaign. But was her campaign—in fact, her whole career, her whole public persona—shaped and influenced by the fact that she was a woman in a male game? Yes. Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses, from her strategic errors to the scramble to be “liked” to the fact that she was married to a former president, were all tied to the fact that she was the first plausible female candidate ever to cut a path toward the presidency. Gender is not a factor connected only to the outcome of her story; it had shaped her narrative from its start.

Now, we’re performing the same oversimplified set of diagnostics on Jill Abramson, fired last week by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

Some, including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, made strong (and unsupported) arguments that yes, Abramson was done in by gender bias. But after several days of reporting—on the very real dysfunction Abramson seemed to create in the newsroom—many of those covering the story seemed to settle, with no small relief, on “no.”  

“Almost nobody I have talked to, male or female, thinks her gender or pay were significant factors,” tweeted the Times’ hard-working media reporter Ravi Somaiya on Sunday. Deputy International Editor Lydia Polgreen appeared to channel the feelings of a number of women within the organization with her series of tweets on the subject, beginning with “The women of the Times would revolt en masse if they thought gender played any role at all in Abramson's firing.” Polgreen named many of the paper’s high-up female editors, noting that these women “more or less run the joint.” She also made sure to add that, “None of this is to say that sexism does not exist at the NYT. It is a big company with its share of problems around equity,” but her point—that those looking to cry “sexism” on Abramson’s dismissal were off the mark—was direct. Even Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer who first reported on Abramson’s inquiry about equal compensation, eventually published an account of Abramson’s bumbling efforts to hire a digital deputy without consulting her existing deputy. He concluded that this version of the story “makes it easier to see why Sulzberger insists that the issue was not one of gender but rather of management and honesty.”

The impulse to boil down questions of identity politics to yes-no, cause-and-effect, not-x-but-y conclusions is easy to understand. 

Those who fully commit to the bias narrative, blaming firings and losses on long-established double-standards, are able to convert the anguish they feel over the serious failings of a representative figure into righteous anger. Righteousness is, on the whole, a far more pleasurable sensation than chronic disillusionment.

Meanwhile, those convinced that identity had no part in whatever drama has just unfolded can more quickly move past that drama and get back to work, their hands clean of any of the prejudices we want to believe live in the past. There’s also an emotional element in play: few people want to accept a version of a story that might tie their own achievements or failures to their identity. We want to see ourselves as individuals, not avatars for whatever group we represent.

I understand the desire to not overstay my time in the Land of the Lingering Outrage, well after everyone else has clocked out and gone for drinks. I rolled my eyes wearily last year after the mayoral election provoked posts like the one in New York headlined “Christine Quinn Got a Raw Deal From Voters—Because She’s a Woman.” I had my own simplistic conviction then: No, she hadn’t lost because she was a woman. When Abramson was fired last week, it wasn’t really a joke that I hoped we’d discover she’d been stealing from the till. It’d be so much easier that way.

Easier, yes. But also pernicious, and self-defeating. It’s not quite honest to move straight from the conclusion that bias might not have played a direct role in an event to encouraging everyone to move along, there’s nothing to see here. In nearly every instance, we do ourselves a disservice in shutting down these enquiries with neat conclusions. We miss the opportunity to look at the larger patterns and the less easily digestible realities of how those figures who have interrupted generations of white straight male power fare as outsiders who rise to the top of the inside. We fail when we seek only a pat answer about the outcome of a story, and don’t look at how the larger narrative played out, how it was transmitted: not just the bad parts, but the good parts too. 

It is not possible, for example, to honestly catalog Abramson’s serious shortcomings without also acknowledging how they were first communicated to the public: in a 2013 Politico piece by Dylan Byers that opened with a story about Baquet slamming his fist into a wall and stalking out of the office. This anecdote was used as evidence to support the thesis that Abramson’s short-tempered managerial style was losing her the support of the newsroom. Abramson was, by many accounts now, a bad manager, and I don’t question the veracity of Byers’ reporting. But it matters that a year ago, in absence of a detailed story like her bungling of the digital deputy hire, or reporting on missteps and indecision she may have exhibited in staffing matters, the way her shortcomings were conveyed, both by the employees who spoke to Byers and then by Byers himself, was through a story of how she made a male colleague so mad that he hit a wall. It showed how male professional exasperation, even physically expressed, is so easily assumed to be rational that it must speak to exactly how unreasonable the woman in question is. By contrast, female exasperation—conveyed by Byers through another tale of Abramson snapping at a photo editor in the manner of every editor I’ve ever worked for—conveniently also works as an example of Abramson’s irrationality.  

Polgreen’s argument—that the number of women at the top of the Times masthead are evidence of the lack of bias within the paper—is a serious one. (It’s certainly more credible than the tone-deaf statement issued by Sulzberger, in which the publisher boasted of his paper’s many female employees, noting approvingly that “they do not look for special treatment.” It did not exactly reflect a keen managerial sensitivity to the investments women might have in their equal—not to say “special”—treatment within workplaces.)

It’s important not to forget, though, that Abramson was the boss responsible for promoting most of the women Polgreen listed. The fact that they have not raised voices in protest, as Polgreen argued, is evidence that there were legitimate reasons behind Abramson’s dismissal. But the existence of these powerful women also speaks to how an individual boss, the first Times boss who was a woman, reshaped the power structure at a newspaper that until very recently did not have a masthead that was half women, and that is still dominated by men. In fact, just before Abramson’s dismissal, the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan—the first woman to have held that position—reported on a study revealing that the paper’s 69 percent male bylines created the worst gendered byline gap of any of the nation’s top circulated newspapers. As for the issue of equal pay: It seems likely that there was little or no cause-and-effect impact of Abramson’s questions about equal compensation. And yet. If one of the pieces of information turned up in this story is that she was consistently paid less than her male counterparts over her last decade at the Times—and no one has yet challenged that reporting persuasively—that still counts, regardless of whether it had anything to do with her dismissal.

Continuing to turn over these complexities is not about wagging fingers at The New York Times as some singularly sexist place. In fact, to suggest that The New York Times still struggles with diversity—a struggle that clearly does not end with the appointment of a female or an African-American editor—is to say, mostly, that it is a deeply American institution. There is grim symmetry in the fact that of its opinion columnists, arguably its most public voices, 18 percent (two of 11) are female, a figure that almost perfectly corresponds to the percentage of women in Congress (18.5). The lone African-American columnist gives the Times a single percentage point advantage over Congress, where only eight percent of members are black.  

These are discrepancies exhibited across the country, across professions, and certainly across the media. And to make matters more confusing, these discrepancies don’t always just add up simply to disadvantage; they also lead to opportunity.

The New Republic recently hired me to write a weekly column and a series of print features, largely about gender politics in the United States. I landed the job in the same month that the VIDA organization released its annual round-up of male and female bylines and reported that The New Republic had had its worst year yet; of the 235 stories published in the print magazine in 2013, only 81 were by women. The timing of my hire was probably not coincidental.

I got my current job for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am female. Jill Abramson got her job for a variety of reasons, one of which is that she is female. The women who got their promotions under Abramson probably also benefitted from their gender. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each faced hatred, but also gained support on account of their identities. What’s also true is that, historically, most presidents and editors got their jobs because they were white men. Gender and race work in varieties of confusing, sometimes counterintuitive, ways. For everyone.

And that’s precisely why we need to be vigilant and honest about how these dynamics play out. For those whose paths are more fraught, and whose ascensions will always be questioned based on assumptions of affirmative-actioned illegitimacy, the worst thing we can do is pretend that their stories are simple, unique to them, and that we’re all just individuals, no baggage of identity politics attached.

After Abramson’s firing, Time’s Walter Isaacson wrote a column about Dean Baquet, who is now the first African-American editor of The New York Times. Baquet, Isaacson wrote, “can be a tough reporter and also a nice person;” he has a “friendly smile and deeply sympathetic soul;” he’s a “teambuilder” with a “natural” smile. Isaacson wrote that what he had learned from “the rise” of Dean Baquet—predicated, in part, on the fall of Jill Abramson—was that “it’s possible to be both smart and kind” and that “nice people sometimes finish first.”

Isaacson’s thesis, I’m pretty sure, was that Dean Baquet is a nice man. The implicit comparison to Abramson, who I’m pretty sure we were to understand was not a nice woman, was obvious. And fine. People didn’t like her; I get it. I also get that Dean Baquet—the individual, specific human being who, for reasons that have nothing to do with his racial identity, is universally beloved by his colleagues—really is a nice man.

But I wondered, reading the piece, if it had ever occurred to Walter Isaacson, whose stewardship of media outlets including Time and CNN has never been remarked upon as unusual because he is a white man with a Harvard degree whose claims to power are quite obvious, that it was very unlikely that a black man who was not nice—who was short-tempered or made people feel anything other than comfortable—would ever have risen to the top of The New York Times. Or, for that matter, that the chances of a kind lady with a natural smile and sympathetic soul becoming the paper’s first female boss were remote.

When people are exceptions to a rule, their exceptionalities shape them in ways that are hard to discern. It’s hard to imagine who they might have been and how they might have presented themselves had they not spent their lives carving new paths around old obstacles and prejudices. People like Baquet and Abramson don’t just clamber out of the same pile of potentially powerful people from which previous generations of leaders have emerged. Their approaches, strategies, and the receptions they face are all shaped—in positive and negative ways—by their only-ness, their first-ness, and their unique positions within structures that were not built with them in mind.