Jill Abramson's Ouster Shows Women We Have to Be Better than Good
On Tuesday afternoon, the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, left the building with little fanfare. She had, apparently, been stripped of her title by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr because of what he called, in addressing the staff and anointing her successor, an issue with management.
That successor, Dean Baquet, started the day as Abramson's deputy and ended it as the first-ever African American to hold the coveted role as top editor of the Gray Lady. But the public celebration of his success was short-lived – because he replaced the first-ever woman to hold that role, and women in media thought they knew why.
The fury of women journalists who identify with Abramson stems from what we know: that excellent performances are not enough. Women must be completely different from the men they replace (or who replace them), apparently – they must adapt to the power they are briefly allowed to hold without transgressing the gender roles they aren't allowed to escape.
Abramson worked at the New York Times for more than a decade before she ascended to the top job. There was nothing mysterious or unknown about her personality – by all accounts, the "brusque" nature and willingness to advocate forcefully for her point of view that later became seen as liabilities (at least by certain male journalists) were long apparent. Yet the tacit expectation was clearly that Abramson's personality would somehow bend to accommodate those who would not accommodate her.
She broke the clubhouse rules. She never became that mythical female boss who is assertive but not aggressive, nurturing but not mothering, not so strong that it bothers the men, but never weak like a woman.
Abramson left as many of us enter: measured on personality and "fit", rather than performance. "[S]ome aspects of Jill's management of our newsroom" is how Sulzberger frames it. But, of course, while women can manage employees, we can almost never manage people's expectations of who we are – or ought to be – as women, and how that feeds in to our ability to manage them as bosses.
In response to two female editors noting for Sulzberger that his disrespectful dismissal wouldn't go over well in the newsroom, hereportedly explained that women, like men, occasionally get fired. Likely no one will write a profile in which his work as the publisher of the New York Times is judged based on his lack of empathy or his blissful ignorance of the emotional impact of his actions. But the first woman executive editor is not just any editor, and this was not just any firing. No one will castigate him for being insufficiently warm and friendly, because he isn't expected to be. That's not his job.
Assessing what counts as a "good job" for a newspaper editor is normally straightforward. You must publish good journalism, break stories and make something the commercial department can sell. In a breathtakingly short two and a half years, Abramson has seen both the journalism and the revenues at the New York Times rise to levels that would have been fanciful to predict when she took the role.
To some eyes, Abramson's New York Times had woken from a coma of complacency. It was sharper, more experimental, more willing to go after stories on the NSA and Chinese oligarchs, even as others balked at the political difficulty. The paper engaged with new formats for telling stories from anything from skiing accidents to the poverty on its own doorstep.
To other eyes – particularly the young, female ones inside the building (as Amanda Hess documented at Slate) – Abramson's New York Times was also a place where women got hired, where their bylines got published, where their issues mattered and where they could see their own futures, sitting at the head of an editorial meeting table.
The thing is, for women in journalism, there are no age-old role models. There are no colorful oral histories of heroic female newspaper editors who were famously drunk after lunch, who berated their staff by standing on a desk and swearing loudly, who wrote long, knowledgeable essays about war, or who played golf exceptionally well. (And, if there were such women, they were probably escorted out of the building with as much dignity as Abramson herself was, and quickly forgotten.) Those stories and histories belong to men because, until quite recently, they have been the ones writing our supposedly shared history as it develops.
Jill Abramson mattered at the New York Times not just because she was good at her job, or because she was apparently good for women at her job, but because she seeming didn't have to stop being Jill Abramson to be there. That is why so many women are mad at what happened her: because we thought that it could be possible for the rest of us to work hard, to do a good job and to be rewarded for the work that we produced, without also having to do the extra work of being someone else.
And now, none of us are sure if that's still true.