Speculation abounds, but I don’t really know why Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill Abramson. Her abrupt departure has caused a flurry in the press and not surprisingly so. Ms. Abramson was the first female executive editor of what the New Yorker’s David Remnick has called America’s “singular news organization”. Her 2011 appointment caused much rejoicing. It marked a deserved milestone in a distinguished career, but even more so a major breakthrough for women in what has always been the Times top leadership “boys club”. As it turned out, her tenure, expected to be long, lasted less than three years.
Abramson’s departure was messy. The Times and Sulzberger himself have been put on the defensive. The media has what it loves, a juicy story about troubles at the top of an icon. That said, interest in this story is probably greater in New York, and especially in its “talking to themselves” bubble, than in the country or world writ large. The Times will survive in tact and will be led editorially by a highly distinguished and popular new executive editor, Dean Baquet. Abramson was the first woman to hold the job; he is the first African American. Another breakthrough.
If you want to get some insight into the Abramson saga, check out Times writer (and one of my favorites) David Carr’s excellent analysis. Without diminishing its importance to her and those involved, let me focus on something we do know about. I’m talking about women in the workplace and in our society in 2014. Abramson’s rise at the Times and Hillary Clinton’s expected rerun for the presidency notwithstanding, the road for women remains long, frustrating and mostly ad hoc. Years ago Philip Morris prematurely touted women’s liberation when they promoted Virginia Slims with the tag line, “you’ve come a long way baby”. Of course, the cigarettes probably took some of those women to the grave and no matter how many Abramson or Hillary stories we can tell, only a few women, the exception not the rule, sit atop, for example, our corporations, law firms, academic institutions. Name a female hedge fund billionaire. Right. The Joint Chiefs are still all male as is the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Wait a minute, you’ll say. Women are now the CEO’s of IBM, Hewlett Packard, PepsiCo, and yes General Motors. Very true, but the more telling news is that for the one hundred top corporations only nine are led by women. I’d call that coming “a short way baby”. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta reported that a factor in Jill Abramson’s firing was that she had complained about unequal pay relative to her male predecessor Bill Keller and in fact in all the jobs she held. Unequal pay for women doing the same work, that’s a stunner. Remember the first bill signed into law by President Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act addressing the rampant problem of unequal pay. To put a number on it, the 2012 Census revealed that workingwomen earn 77cents for every dollar earned by men. Patheic as it may be, our society still puts a higher value on men’s work, not to mention our reflex default expressed so well in those highway construction signs, “Men at Work”.
For sure, women have made progress; take for example in the judiciary. There are three currently sitting female Supreme Court Justices. Yes, but women account for only one in four federal judges over all. There has been significant progress within many religious denominations, but the orthodox among all faiths, hold steadfastly to the idea of clergyman — men at work. Indeed among these religious groups “baby hasn’t come any way at all”. And speaking of baby, a part of the problem women face is the language we use, not to mention those stereotypical images — powerful images — that we project onto women. Maybe we don’t hear it as much any more but “that’s woman’s work” (anything around the house or with children) is just one of them. The notion of a “weaker sex”, says so much more than women perhaps not having the same physical strength as men. And, as I suggest in my book, the place of women can be traced to the powerful idea of a he-God, reinforced especially for Christians by a divine son. Why not, I asked there, a Jessica rather than a Jesus?
Forceful male leaders are often described as demanding; women doing the very same thing are called pushy. The first is meant as a complement; the second translates as hard to work with. Men are intense, women high strung. Are these descriptors always used? Of course not, but even assuming it’s just often is bad enough. Jill Abramson was definitely “pushy” a term not employed in describing Howell Raines, the last Times executive editor to be sacked. And, from what I’ve read Raines was far pushier than Abramson. Fortunately, in these not so post racial but at least improved days, it’s unlikely that Dean Baquet will ever be labeled openly as uppity. That doesn’t mean some people won’t think it (my April post, OMG — A Black President).
To be sure, as with all human beings, there are genetic elements that separate us one from another including men and women. On some very important levels we celebrate those differences. But when it comes to the workplace, our attitudes are heavily and purposefully nurtured. As the breakthrough Oscar Hammerstein South Pacific lyric suggested, our prejudices are learned:
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught
So much of how we see women, and indeed how they often see themselves, is carefully taught, ingrained into our conscious and unconscious. It’s done in small seemingly innocent and innocuous ways — that pink outfit, that doll, that little tea set all reserved for girls — but make no mistake, its there. Is it all bad? Again, of course not, but when it comes to the workplace that teaching we get before we’re “six or seven or eight” puts a special burden on women. To be sure, some of it is self-imposed, but honestly most of it is inflicted. A woman in the workplace remains, unnatural and abnormal. At least it reads that way. It may not have been decisive in Abramson’s firing, but it didn’t help.