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.”