Jill Abramson: Why the New York Times ousted its first female top editor (+video)

Jill Abramson: The surprise firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson raises eyebrows and questions about whether there's a 'glass cliff' for women in power that's not as evident for men.

By , Staff writer

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    Pedestrians wait for cabs across the street from The New York Times in New York on Wednesday. Executive editor Jill Abramson is being replaced.
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When the New York Times suddenly and unceremoniously dismissed executive editor Jill Abramson on Wednesday, its newsroom was filled with gob-smacked gasps and reeling “wow” reactions.

And as their tweets fluttered out and the news broke, the rest of the media world quickly joined their stunned colleagues. Less than three years on the job, Ms. Abramson held one of the most powerful editorial positions in the world, and she was the first woman in 162 years to stand at the helm of the storied newsroom.

Given the power of Abramson's position and her relatively brief tenure, many observers began to raise the elusive specter of sexism and the so-called "glass cliff" faced by women in high places. During the past 10 years, nearly 4 out of 10 top female executives in the world’s biggest companies have been fired, while only 27 percent of their male counterparts lost their top-level jobs, according to a study of the world’s 2,500 biggest companies by Strategy&, a global consultant.

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And in a remarkable coincidence, Natalie Nougayrède, the first female editor-in-chief of Le Monde, the venerable Paris-based daily and one of the most prestigious news organizations in Europe, was forced to quit yesterday after senior editors staged a newsroom revolt to her leadership, objecting to changes she had planned.

 Abramson’s ouster comes amid a tumultuous time for American newsrooms, still adjusting to economic upheavals wrought by the transition to digital platforms. And despite this gendered context, tensions had been simmering at the Times for a while, according to a number of reports. “[I] can say that this leadership shift was expected eventually – just not now,” tweeted Laurie Goodstein, a religion reporter at the Times.

Abramson was fired primarily because of her “mercurial” style, according to the Times, noting this style polarized the newsroom and led to many complaints. The paper also described “serious tension” in her relationship with Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher and chairman of The New York Times Company.

Mr. Sulzberger reportedly told the staff that the decision to oust Abramson was “not about the quality of our journalism” or “any disagreement over the direction of our digital future,” according to CNN's senior media correspondent Brian Stelter, a former media reporter at the Times who worked with both. Indeed, during Abramson's 2-1/2 years on the job, the paper collected eight Pulitzer Prizes, the profession’s top honor – including four prizes just last year.

Noting Sulzberger's reported issues with Abramson’s leadership style, rather than her accomplishments or decisions, many women have pointed out how difficult it is for women to express the same kind of aggressive – and abrasive – traits as ambitious male leaders.

“I think that people need to remember that women who have made it to the top have gotten there because of certain qualities,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women in Washington. “They have had to be better, faster, stronger, more brash, more gruff, however you want to say it, in order to get that far.”

“We have a very special name for women like that in our culture,” she continues. “That’s not to say that that’s not a prickly or difficult person to work with, but we certainly don't seem to have a problem working with men who are like that. It’s women that we penalize when they get into these upper echelon positions.”

The focus on Abramson’s ouster, however, has detracted from the historic accomplishment of her successor, Dean Baquet, who had been the paper’s managing editor, the second-senior position in the newsroom.

Mr. Baquet, reported to be a popular figure among the Times’ staff, became the first black journalist to lead the Times on Wednesday – a fact that would have been hailed as another historic milestone in the quest for equality for minorities. Baquet was the Washington bureau chief before becoming managing editor in 2011 and, before that, had been the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. In 1988, he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for the Chicago Tribune.

But instead of focusing on his achievement, the Times, on Thursday, has been facing a growing number of questions about possible sexism in Abramson’s firing. On Wednesday, media journalists for The New Yorker and NPR reported that Abramson’s lawyer had confronted “top brass” when she learned that her pay and pension benefits were well below the levels of her predecessor, Bill Keller.

“[This] may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was 'pushy,' a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect,” wrote Ken Auletta for The New Yorker.

Abramson’s firing, too, comes during a time when equal pay for female employees has once again become a national issue. In April, Senate Republicans killed an equal-pay bill in election year maneuverings, and President Obama signed two executive orders last month, one forbidding federal contractors from retaliating against employees who inquire about their pay, and the other requiring federal contractors to give the US Labor Department demographic information about how they pay their employees.

The Times rejected the suggestion that she was underpaid, however. "Jill's total compensation as executive editor was not less than Bill Keller's, so that is just incorrect," said New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy to Politico on Wednesday. "Her pension benefit, like all Times employees, is based on her years of service and compensation. The pension benefit was frozen in 2009."

And, in addition to concerns over Abramson's management style, reports said she had clashed with the Times Company’s CEO Mark Thompson over the intrusion of business matters into editorial content and the growing resources being devoted to the use of video.

“There were other issues,” The New Yorker's Mr. Auletta said on "CBS This Morning" on Thursday. “She wasn’t just fired, clearly, because of the pay disparity issue. That fed into a narrative that she was difficult to work with.”

But other high-level women at the Times reportedly expressed frustration with Sulzberger’s decision to fire the paper’s first female executive editor. According to Capital New York, both national editor Alison Mitchell and and assistant managing editor Susan Chira told the company’s chairman that Abramson’s ouster “wouldn’t sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists.”

Indeed, on Thursday, a number of young female staffers at the Times told Salon how symbolically important Abramson’s success was for their own career prospects, especially since she had been bringing more women into leadership positions at the paper.

“Women in such positions feel pressure about the fact that they are, in some respects, the trial for all women,” says Ms. Maatz at the AAUW. “That if somehow they don’t do well, their company is less likely to promote other women – and of course women leaders care about that.”

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