Jill Abramson and Those Goddamn Pushy Female Bosses


Late last year, Politico published a lengthy profile of New York Times editor Jill Abramson, the first female editor in the paper’s history. The piece was about widespread discontentment in the newsroom — not based on Abramson’s actual performance as editor (some called her “incredible”), but based on what staffers alleged about her chilly “temperament.” Over the course of the feature, employees—many of them anonymous—and the author called the editor “brusque,” “difficult,” “condescending,” “stubborn,” and “impossible” (violations for which powerful men are rarely called out). But it wasn’t just her pushy attitude, it was her voice too: it sound like like a “nasal car honk” (God forbid!). All of this, as I wrote at the time, caused Times staffers to conclude that the storied newspaper was “leaderless.”

It was a case study in sexist language – whether or not you believed Abramson was a good boss. So when the Times announced this week that Abramson was leaving – publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told stunned staffers that the move was the result of “an issue with management in the newsroom” and a company spokeswoman said Abramson would not be assisting in the transition (ouch) – it was only a matter of time before the inevitable gender question surfaced. A report in the New Yorker alleged that Abramson had confronted Sulzberger over pay disparity, feeding into the narrative that she was “pushy.” The Times has refuted that claim, only to have at least nine other speculative theories explode. What we do know for a fact is that she’ll be replaced by managing editor Dean Baquet, the first African-American to run the newsroom. (Disclosure: I’m a freelancer for the paper myself.)

Abramson had been a staunch advocate for women at the Times, but it was clear that gender imbalance remained an issue at the paper , and not only on the masthead. In a piece about the gap in byline counts this week, Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan lamented that, “After three decades in journalism, I find it hard to believe that – while things have changed radically in some ways – there’s still such a gender imbalance.”

When the news of Abramson’s firing was announced on Wednesday, sources told Capitol New York that female editors spoke up — one suggesting the move wouldn’t sit well with female journalists who saw her as a role model. Sulzberger’s response: When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.

Except the sober reality is that when it comes to female bosses, parity is a joke. Just last month, a study from Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co) revealed that women in chief executive roles are actually fired more frequently than men — the result of what researchers called the “glass cliff theory,” or that minorities tend to be appointed to top jobs when a company needs saving but are scrutinized more harshly when they fail. According to a recent Gallup poll, in fact, Americans of all education levels and of both sexes prefer a male boss by an average of 33 percent.

So what can Jill Ambramson teach us about female bosses? That we’re still uncomfortable with them, for one. That, when a female boss leads like a man, we’ll deem her “brusque,” “pushy,” but when she leads like a woman, we’ll brush her off as too “soft.”

Research has long shown that women in power are judged more harshly because they’re women — what researchers call the “double bind.” The cause of course is stereotypes: that we expect women to be less competent from the start. That a female boss in and of itself violates our cultural expectations about how women are supposed to be, act, behave: you know, nurturing, maternal, warm.

So when a woman tries to act like a man to get ahead — or, you might say, like a leader — she suffers: liked less by both male and female colleagues, penalized for being “too aggressive.” When a man leads we see his assertiveness as “bold,” his demands “direct.” But when you’re Abramson — or any female boss before her — you’re just a bitch.

The 2003 “Heidi Howard” study by researchers at Columbia makes the point clearly. They presented business school students with the story of a successful entrepreneur and asked them to assess the candidate. But they told half the class the entrepreneur was named Heidi, and the other that he was Howard. While both “Heidi” and “Howard” were rated as “competent” and “worthy of respect,” Heidi was viewed as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Howard was the more appealing colleague. In reality, Heidi and Howard were both Heidi Rozen, a real-life entrepreneur.

At this point, we’ve all read the studies about how women can try to navigate these hazards. They can try to make themselves “approachable .” They can smile while they make a demand — or ask for a raise — and they’ll be more likely to get it. They try harder to be “nice,” or couch their statements in questions.

But those tactics don’t always work either, as women who are too soft are deemed less competent all over again. Which means we’re left on a tightrope that’s impossible to balance: we must be “approachable” but not soft; assertive but not “too tough,” firm but not “condescending.” We’ve got to be able to make quick decisions under pressure, but not be so brutal that our “temperament” is called into question. In other words, we’ve got no room for error.

The details of Ambramson’s departure will no doubt continue to emerge. But it seems a safe bet that the coverage of her successor will be different — and probably not because he has a lighter touch.

Jessica Bennett is a columnist at Time.com who covers gender and pop culture. A former writer at Newsweek and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor at Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In.

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