Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Was Jill Abramson fired because she is a woman?

By Frida Ghitis
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jill Abramson, top editor at The New York Times, was fired by the paper's publisher
  • Frida Ghitis: Abramson's ouster raises questions about pay equity, gender issues
  • She says men get praised for being strong, but women are criticized for being pushy
  • Ghitis: Navigating corporate ladder for women is paved with uncertainty and biases

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- You can draw your own conclusions about why Jill Abramson was fired, but as we look at the history of her tenure as executive editor of The New York Times, the world's most prestigious and influential newspaper, and learn details about how it came to an end, women everywhere are shaking their heads.

Any woman who has spent time in the work force is familiar with the challenges of being judged and treated fairly by her peers and bosses, of obtaining the recognition she deserves, and of being an effective advocate for one's own career.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Women battle to break through the glass ceiling. After that, what comes is walking on broken glass.

It's popular now to talk about the need for women to lean in. But, that's not even half the battle. Turns out, as many women have discovered, that leaning in can actually get you sacked.

Man vs women and the income gap
OutFront: Jill Abramson

Just hours after NYTimes.com unceremoniously removed Abramson's name from the masthead and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told employees she had been replaced, without offering much of an explanation, we learned that Abramson, who had held the job for less than three years, had confronted her bosses about her compensation, telling them she had discovered her total compensation -- salary and benefits -- was substantially lower than that of her predecessor, former editor Bill Keller.

The Times quickly shot back, rejecting the pay disparity argument, saying Abramson's total compensation was comparable to Keller's, and that her "pension benefit, like all Times employees, is based on her years of service and compensation. The pension benefit was frozen in 2009."

Sulzberger issued a statement later saying it wasn't about money and it's not true that Abramson was paid less than her predecessor. He said that in her last year, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than Keller's in his last year as executive editor.

Now it's become she said / he said. But compensation aside, in his announcement on Wednesday, Sulzberger did say his decision had to do with "an issue with management in the newsroom."

So it's about management. OK. That seems to match a remarkably similar chain of events in Paris, where Natalie Nougayrède, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious newspaper, Le Monde, was forced out of her job after other journalists accused her of being too authoritarian, or "Putin-like." What a curious coincidence.

Before Abramson's departure, the personality-driven criticism had wafted out of the Times newsroom, with accusations that reeked of sexism. A few months ago, an article discussed whether she is "bitchy," and the word "pushy" keeps coming up.

I have spent many years in the news business and I can think of countless successful high-level managers who were pushy, bossy, at times downright cruel with staff. Those men were often viewed as strong, driven, effective, determined, good leaders.

The Washington Post's legendary Ben Bradlee was affectionately described as having a "pugnacious personality." And Abramson's predecessor, Bill Keller, said his wife describes him as "socially autistic." These traits would likely doom a woman's career. In men, they are viewed as quirks, curiosities, even assets in the single-minded pursuit of journalistic success.

Men's personalities are fodder for office gossip, but more generally viewed as a secondary matter, perhaps a topic for conversation at the bar after a long day. With women, it infuses their professional persona.

People expect women to be nice, likeable or feminine. And it turns out being strong and demanding, and not always warm and friendly, can destroy your career, or at least make for a much less successful one.

You cannot win without losing. In order to do a good job, women may find they have to take actions that turn people against them.

The problem with the stereotyping that demands women be liked and likeable is that it is much hazier, more difficult to counteract. It often lies hidden below the surface, alongside conscious efforts at equality.

The New York Times and Le Monde and other major organizations have made strides to promote women. Abramson was the paper's first female executive editor. Her superior made a landmark decision in promoting her, just as they did with her replacement Dean Baquet, the Times' first African-American executive editor. But the tide of antagonism, the no-win rules that say you fail if you succeed can be found at all levels of the organization, including among rank-and-file staff.

By objective standards, Abramson did a fine job. The paper won eight Pulitzer prizes during her brief tenure, with top-notch reporting and investigative journalism. Signups for digital access among readers increased. The company stock doubled during her tenure, performing better than the rest of the stock market.

Doing a good job by objective measures, as we know, is not enough.

That's especially true for women, who as Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book "Lean In," worry about being liked.

If it is difficult for women to exercise leadership in order to advance the businesses they lead, that obstacle is a mere bump on the road when compared to the challenge of advocating on their own behalf.

We don't know to what extent Abramson's complaint about her compensation was a factor in her firing. But we know just how risky and complicated it is for women to ask for better pay.

Women at every level are paid less than their male counterparts. Top female executives make 18% less than their male counterparts. The same is true for female journalists.

Trying to change that is excruciatingly difficult. As a recent New York Times article puts it, asking for a promotion or raise can make women seem "overly demanding and unlikeable" and not "sufficiently feminine, unseemly, if on a subconscious level."

It's all incredibly irritating and offensive. And it needs to change.

The specific circumstance that brought Jill Abramson's sudden and shockingly undignified fall at the New York Times or Natalie Nougayrède's exit are almost secondary. The episodes have an ugly ring that is familiar to women. For all the progress we have seen, there is still a long, long way to go.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT