The uproar over the firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, already a spectacle of warring memos and Twitter hashtags, could take another turn today when she speaks publicly for the first time.
“The story isn’t over, not even close,” Abramson’s doctor daughter, Cornelia Little Griggs, posted on Instagram on May 16. Abramson is scheduled to give the commencement speech today at Wake Forest University, whose president cites her as an example of resilience for the Class of 2014.
Last week’s brusque ouster of the first woman to run the Times in its 162-year history set off a storm on social media, where twin narratives are playing out. In one, Abramson supporters -- rallying under #TeamJill -- focus on disparities in the way female managers are treated and paid. In the other, New York Times Co. Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. says Abramson had conflicts with too many people in the newsroom. He disputes she was paid less than her predecessor.
The talk of management style unnerves supporters who rejoiced in 2011 at Abramson’s elevation to the top journalism job at the world’s most influential English-language newspaper. Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University, said the firing sends a mixed message at a time when women are being encouraged to promote themselves in the workplace, as described in the book “Lean In” by Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
“She was a beacon of hope for women in all kinds of other pursuits,” Gerson said. “All the advice that young women have been getting is being contradicted.” Sandberg declined to comment.
The story made Abramson part of the news, instead of one of its purveyors. The New York Post ran photographs of Abramson, 60, doing routine chores such as walking her dog; New York magazine’s fashion blog, the Cut, offered advice from Brooklyn artists on how the ousted editor should alter the Times’s T logo she has said is tattooed on her back.
The social-media banter continued steadily through the weekend in advance of Abramson’s commencement address this morning in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The chatter was fanned by a May 17 statement from Sulzberger denying any gender bias in his decision to fire Abramson and promote Managing Editor Dean Baquet to replace her. She was paid 10 percent more than predecessor Bill Keller in her last full year, Sulzberger said, without breaking out her salary, bonus and other compensation.
“During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues,” Sulzberger wrote.
Kara Swisher, the co-executive editor of the Re/code technology blog and former Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a post aligning herself with Abramson as a “Pushy Media Dame.”
“That steel-backed ability to communicate an aura of toughness and command has never been a minus to me, and, I would assume, not at the pinnacle of American journalism where the Times has long reigned,” Swisher wrote.
Not everyone blamed Abramson’s departure on her gender. Lydia Polgreen, the Times’s deputy international editor, said on Twitter that there would have been a revolt at the paper had women perceived that Abramson was fired because of her gender: “There have been many searching conversations, but no women’s revolt.” She later said on Twitter: “The very real struggle for equality in the newsroom seems poorly served by a very messy and complicated situation.”
Abramson is known as an advocate of gender equality. When she became editor in September 2011, she said she “stood on other shoulders” than the men who preceded her and thanked more than a dozen women she said helped her during her career. Among those she thanked: Janet Robinson, who was fired as the company’s chief executive officer about two months later. That was a management change Abramson was unhappy about, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who didn’t want to be named because he isn’t authorized to talk publicly.
The end of her career at the Times shows how women often face a double bind of being harshly for being aggressive and tough, traits that are expected and praised in male leaders.
“Men are stereotypically expected to take charge, while women are stereotypically expected to take care,” said Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, the New York research and advocacy group for women executives. “When women don’t conform to the stereotypes, they get pushback.”
Politico Magazine Editor Susan G. Glasser cited both Abramson’s exit and the departure last week of the first female to run Paris-based Le Monde in an essay she titled “Editing While Female: Field Notes From One of Journalism’s Most Dangerous Jobs.” Natalie Nougayrede, a friend of Glasser’s, left Le Monde after what she said in a statement were “personal attacks” that prevented her from managing.
The two departures underscored something for Glasser beyond newspapering. “We like to pretend that it’s different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter that glass ceiling into thousands of pieces,” she wrote. “But it’s not true.”
Regardless of whether being female played a role in Abramson’s firing, “the whole way it’s being discussed is gendered,” said Mary Dalton, a professor of communications and gender issues at Wake Forest.
Women have long lagged men in top newspaper positions. According to data from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, about 34 percent of supervisory positions are held by women, a proportion that’s barely budged in 15 years.
“If you go through your career looking upward, it’s heartening to see someone who looks like you,” said Janice Castro, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism.
Women haven’t been underrepresented only in management at the Times. According to a report on the Status of Women in the U.S. Media by the Women’s Media Center this year, the Times had the widest gender gap in male-female bylines of the 10 largest U.S. newspapers. Men were quoted 3.4 times more often than women in page one stories in a study of the January and February 2013 issues by students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Many female reporters and editors at the Times who saw Abramson as both an advocate and a role model are upset, according to a reporter who didn’t want to be named because she wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter.
“Newsrooms have a ways to go with regards to women,” Lexi Mainland, a New York Times editor, said on Twitter, “not least of which NYT.”
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