The unceremonious firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson this past week reminded women across the nation how far women have come—and how far we have left to go.
Abramson was the first woman to hold the most senior editorial position at the Times, and her firing was met with a barrage of commentary and press. At the center of the media whirlwind remains a question with an elusive answer: was Abramson fired for her leadership style, or because she challenged male superiors upon learning she was paid significantly less than her predecessor? The answer, unfortunately, makes little difference in the fight for gender equality. The problem, moreover, is the ridiculous media conversation as a whole.
As the executive editor for one of the U.S.’s most acclaimed journalistic institutions for nearly two and a half years, Abramson was credited with making great strides for the paper’s content, especially in terms of making a traditionally print medium successful in the digital age. Little good that did her, when conflict arose between her and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger. In a series of disputes that have been meticulously analyzed over the past two week, Sulzberger had several points of contention with Abramson, enough that they warranted her dismissal. One such conflict stemmed from the fact that Abramson found evidence that she was being paid less than her male predecessor, and upon discovering the inequity, hired a lawyer.
The story, though, has only gotten more depressing as it has developed. Two media camps have emerged, with one side questioning Abramson’s leadership style, using a 2013 Politico profile by Dylan Byers for support, which stated that anonymous Times staffers found her to be “condescending,” “difficult,” and “unreasonable.” Others, however, believe she is being publically maligned for being a woman in power who stepped on more than a few male toes. The polarization of this situation is unfortunate, because her firing is symptomatic of a more nuanced problem that demands attention: in this country, there are not enough women in positions of power.
The Times is 163 years old, and Abramson was the first woman to hold the position of executive editor. Her ascent to such a powerful spot was heralded as a mighty and overdue step forward for women across the country and the world. This makes the circumstances of her firing are all the more unacceptable, with her leadership style being dragged through the mud in such a public fashion. Regardless of the conflicts that led to her firing, it seems that a sort of sexist glee has been perpetuated in commentaries following the event, with Abramson being caricatured as a tyrannical leader who was hard to work with. Had she been a man, would her leadership style have even been questioned in the public sphere so heavily after her firing? Take, for instance, the manner in which Steve Jobs and his legacy have been handled in the media. The unfortunate circumstances of his passing aside, Jobs was and still is constantly lauded for being a visionary and strong leader. His legacy spawned not only a bio-epic, but also a film homage replete with a cast of Hollywood stars. Sure, he was mildly criticized by some for being difficult to work with, but never to the extent that Abramson has been tarred and feathered, and arguably she has been just as revolutionary.
Abramson’s commitment to integrating print with online media at the Times has been hailed by many as a great success which continues to sustain the institution. Her changes to the editorial board and bureaus, too, were seen as completely novel and fresh choices. In addition, in 2013, through the hiring of a host of vibrant female journalists, Abramson was able to finally achieve the feat of having as many women editors as men in the highest editorial positions. She changed the Times in completely dynamic ways, and instead of receiving the commendation she is due, she was fired and dragged through the mud.
Abramson, to many young and old, is a hero. She proved to young women that with drive, passion, and hard work, one can achieve and thrive. For this reason, the spectacle of her dismissal has only signaled how much ground must still be covered by women in order to be treated as men’s equals. With this in mind, it is salient to note that one of the most effective ways to combat discrimination such as this is to have more representation of the oppressed minority group. Truly, that is what Abramson was at the Times. She was positive proof that women could and would be the top leader in an organization once seen as a “boys club.” She signaled that the times were, in fact, changing. Her departure casts a long shadow over progress once made.