Abramson’s attempt to raise the salary issue at a time when tempers were already frayed seemed wrongheaded to [publisher Arthur O.] Sulzberger and [CEO Mark] Thompson, both on its merits and in terms of her approach. Bringing in a lawyer, in particular, seems to have struck them as especially combative. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that “this incident was a contributing factor” to the firing of Abramson, because “it was part of a pattern.” (Update: Murphy wrote to me after this post went up to dispute this. Her quote is accurate and in context, as I’ve confirmed in my notes. However, she now e-mails: “I said to you that the issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration. I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true.”)
Josh Marshall explains why this piece of reporting matters:
As you see, since I started writing this post, Murphy tried to get Auletta to issue a correction. And for good reason. If someone alleges employment discrimination and then retains a lawyer and you fire them for doing so, that’s big, big trouble. Basically wrongful termination on its face. And compounded if the initial claim is judged valid.
Either Murphy or the Times lawyers must have realized this as soon as they saw the piece. And how big a problem it was. Thus the failed attempt to secure a retraction.
Marcotte reflects on Abramson’s ouster:
This story, particularly in its current state of more-guessing-than-knowing, speaks to the deep, immoveable, and totally realistic fear many women have that there’s nothing they can do to overcome sexism in the workplace.
They worry that they can lean in, do the dance, do the work, calibrate themselves, obsess over reading a room and figuring out the exact dosage of femininity required to work it, and it still won’t matter. Women worry that the single word “pushy” can destroy everything they’ve worked for. Abramson’s story suggests that they may not be paranoid to think it.
Ann Friedman makes related points:
In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you. Abramson exhibited this tension: She was unapologetic about her power and firm about her decisions, but she was also working with a coach to improve her management skills — presumably in response to complaints, such as those aired anonymously in Politico last year, that she was unpopular, unapproachable, condescending, brusque. Even though she and many outsiders recognized the double standards in the article, she later told Newsweek it made her cry.
I’m sure those quotes stung on a personal level, but they were also a grave professional threat. Some of the most successful people in the world profess not to care what others think of them. But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the “only one” in the room, not caring is not an option. This is not because all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues; it’s because those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman’s job performance. Women are sometimes advised to keep a low profile and let their work “speak for itself.” But in Abramson’s case, eight Pulitzers did not speak loudly enough. Revenue growth did not speak loudly enough. Successful new digital products did not speak loudly enough.
Hanna Rosin weighs in:
Reports about her from the newsroom have always been mixed, as I reported in an earlier Slate story. Many women were inspired by her. I’ve heard people describe her as honest, exacting, funny, loyal, and very generous. More lately, a word I heard was “depleted,” as if the more harsh, negative sides of her personality were casting a gloom on the newsroom, as if she could not quite carry the stress of the job.
Maybe that’s a good enough reason to fire someone. It would be odd if politics dictated that you weren’t allowed to fire a woman, even if she were the most powerful woman in journalism. But the way it happened makes it hard to read the newspaper’s own front-page story and not see Baquet, Sulzberger, Keller, and all the powerful men in the history of the Times on the inside and one loyal, tattooed soldier now out.
Amanda Hess claims that, “to many women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything”:
The New York Times is a newspaper where mostly male reporters cover industries—politics, media, sports, the military, the courts, the arts—that are also overwhelmingly run by men. With Abramson’s appointment, the Times cemented a female perspective at the top of the masthead for the very first time, and young women on the staff responded instantly.
“Among the women here, there was a deep appreciation that another woman was high up at the Times. It symbolically had an impact,” one young female staffer told me. “We felt possessive and proud of Jill, and [appreciated] her stories about [New Yorker reporter] Jane Mayer and her other female friends in journalism,” said another. “We loved that she had all those tattoos,” she continued, referring to the Times’ T on Abramson’s back. “We were curious about her and how she got to where she was in a way that [we weren’t] about senior male editors. This might have been just my imagination, but I felt like I related to and empathized with her in a way I hadn’t with male editors.” A third put it this way: “Jill leaned in before everyone else, ever. Before Lean In. She’s pre-Sheryl Sheryl, but with more style and more class.”
McArdle joins the conversation:
Most notable of all is the way she was fired. She seems to have been given no opportunity to address the newsroom, no fig leaf to resign, no sinecure consultancy to a department no one cares about. Indeed, management seems to be going out of its way not to say nice things about her. That’s less than Howell Raines got after he presided over the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg disasters. Which of her offenses was so grave that higher-ups are going to such extraordinary lengths to humiliate her? It’s very hard for me not to suspect an element of masculine umbrage to this, a determination that Abramson should not merely be let go, but also put in her place.
And yet, we’ll never really know, will we? This is what troubles every ambitious woman: You’ll never really know how big a role sexism plays in your setbacks.
Kilgore observes how very often organizations will “go to great lengths to sugar-coat the justified sacking of a senior employee to avoid speculation about the incident”:
Give ‘em a going-away party, let ‘em pretend they left “to pursue other opportunities,” gild that parachute—you probably know the drill. I’ve also seen organizations deal with firings by asking for the employee’s keys in the termination meeting and then making sure a security guard met them at their desk with a box to collect personal items. That generally occurs with poor schmoes whose fate will not generate Twitter wars or consume the national commentariat.
I don’t know if Jill Abramson’s firing was justified or not, but she’s a global celebrity in her profession, and nobody at the Times should be surprised that giving her the bum’s rush would blow up in their faces.