Jill Abramson and the 'Narrow Band' of Acceptable Female Behavior

The former executive editor of the Times wasn't well liked because "aggressive" female leaders rarely are.
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Kena Betancur/Reuters

One reason for the tension between former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and her boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was that Abramson challenged him over what she saw as unequal pay, according to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. Abramson was replaced on Wednesday with the paper’s managing editor, Dean Baquet.

“Several weeks ago,” Auletta writes, “I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. ‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said.”

As Auletta put it, the demand, “may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”

New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy has since contradicted Auletta’s account in a statement to Business Insider:

"Jill's total compensation as executive editor was not meaningfully less than Bill Keller's, so that is just incorrect," Murphy wrote in an email. "Her pension benefit, like all Times employees, is based on her years of service and compensation. The pension benefit was frozen in 2009."

So it’s possible that Abramson was sparring over a nonexistent pay disparity, or, perhaps, one justified by other factors. It wasn’t the first time she was seen as too brash, however—not just by her boss, but by much of the newsroom. In an earlier New Yorker profile, Auletta suggested that some Times employees viewed Abramson as overly aggressive and strong-willed.

“Jill is a little more competitive,” [former New York Times managing editor John M.] Geddes told him. “She will say, ‘XYZ had this story this morning. What are we doing?’”

Past accounts of her tenure documented her “blowing up” in meetings, arguing with other editors over coverage, and otherwise being brusque with employees.

In the more recent piece, Auletta cites other conflicts that might have spurred Sulzberger to remove Abramson—she clashed with Times CEO Mark Thompson, for example, and she apparently hadn’t sufficiently consulted with Baquet before trying to hire a deputy editor, The Guardian's Janine Gibson.

We may never know Sulzberger’s true motivations for the change, and the story is likely far messier than the social-justice-resonant narrative that gained traction on Twitter. Even Auletta conceded that Abramson’s complaints about the pay issue might simply have been the final straw in a series of ugly confrontations. An account from the Times says that the Baquet and Abramson's strained relations, "rose to the attention of Sulzberger, who was already concerned about her style of newsroom management."

Still, news of Abramson’s firing whipped social media into a fury on Wednesday. Wage-gap issue aside, would a similarly gruff male editor have been similarly controversial?

If it’s true that Sulzberger and others were perturbed by Abramson’s "aggressive" style, their dynamic is representative of a series of findings from management psychology which show that female leaders are disproportionately disliked for behaving forcefully.

In 1987, a group of researchers theorized that there is a “narrow band of acceptable behavior” for women leaders—actions that are not too feminine, but not overly masculine, either. This is the idea behind Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that women should “smile— even when they don’t feel like it” and substitute “we for I” whenever possible.

In 2007, New York University’s Madeline E. Heilman found in a clinical study that people tend to resist female leaders who are direct and assertive, but they warm to them if those same female bosses express “communal” characteristics that hint at more traditional gender roles.

For example, a memo about a female company vice president attesting to her “outstanding effectiveness, competence, and aggressive achievement focus” went over much better when the researchers appended this paragraph:

“Although Andrea’s co-workers agree that she demands a lot from her employees, they have also described her as an involved manager who is caring and sensitive to their needs. She emphasizes the importance of having a supportive work environment and has been commended for her efforts to promote a positive community.”

As I’ve written before, people tend to like female leaders best when they lead their organizations not unlike one would lead a casual weekend drum circle—cheerily deferring to others and giving everyone a chance. Meanwhile, people tend to resent female leaders more than their male counterparts when they behave authoritatively. And Abramson, by all accounts, was nothing if not authoritative.

Economists have suggested that one factor driving the gender wage gap is that women “don’t ask” for as much money in negotiations. The implication is, then, that women should ask, since they supposedly have nothing to lose. But both social-science research and real-life job sagas have shown that women sometimes do pay a price for self-advocating. A few months ago, the story of one female job candidate went viral when Nazareth College allegedly retracted an offer when she asked for better compensation.

Times national editor Alison Mitchell suggested to Capital New York Wednesday that Abramson's firing “wouldn't sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists who saw her as a role model.” But what would be even more demoralizing is if it turns out to be true that a woman as powerful as Abramson was punished for being "pushy"—and, worse yet, if the pay gap between the two editors was real.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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