It'll be some time before we know the full story behind Jill Abramson's ouster at the New York Times — if we ever really do. But from what we do know, her whole career at the Times tracks why it sucks to be a woman leader in America today.
Begin at the beginning. Abramson was appointed to her position in 2011 — a horrible time for newspapers. That fits. In a 2005 paper, researchers from the University of Exeter coined the term "glass cliff" to refer to the tendency of poorly performing companies to appoint women leaders during periods of maximum turmoil. The result is women end up taking the helm of companies during periods of hard choices and painful cuts that can make success seem nearly impossible.
Abramson was handed the reins of a New York Times undergoing a wrenching digital transition. "When she was brought on, anyone who was going to be the next editor of the New York Times was going to be taking the New York Times in this brave new era of information," says Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio and TheLi.st, which promotes women in media. "That's widely seen across the industry as a big challenge."
Outward appearances suggest the Times, under Abramson, managed it well. During her tenure, the Times' business flourished even as other newspapers suffered. The web site, too, has been something of a marvel, generating huge revenue off of its paywall. But the upheaval necessary to stay ahead lent itself to continuous clashes between Abramson and her colleagues.
The reason publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. gave in his announcement about Abramson's firing was "an issue with management in the newsroom." That echoes reports that Abramson's brusque leadership style clashed with leadership and reporters alike (criticisms that are near impossible to read as non-gendered, particularly in the news world, where pushiness is often seen as a virtue in men). In a controversial 2013 piece in Politico, Dylan Byers wrote: "At times, [staffers] say, her attitude toward editors and reporters leaves everyone feeling demoralized; on other occasions, she can seem disengaged or uncaring."
But a look at the examples he gave shows just how gendered these discussions can get. In one instance, Abramson reportedly ordered an editor to leave a meeting to change a stale photo on the newspaper's homepage. That was played in the article as proof of Abramson's brusque, demoralizing style. But compare that to this anecdote about how Tim Cook, head of Apple, dealt with a manufacturing problem in China:
"This is really bad," Cook told the group. "Someone should be in China driving this." Thirty minutes into that meeting Cook looked at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and abruptly asked, without a trace of emotion, "Why are you still here?"
Khan, who remains one of Cook's top lieutenants to this day, immediately stood up, drove to San Francisco International Airport, and, without a change of clothes, booked a flight to China with no return date, according to people familiar with the episode. The story is vintage Cook: demanding and unemotional.
Changing a photo on a homepage is a lot less taxing than dropping everything to fly to China.
Meanwhile, Abramson's successor as executive editor, Dean Baquet, is depicted in the article as throwing a temper tantrum after one meeting with Abramson. Upon leaving her office he "slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom," Byers writes. "He would be gone for the rest of the day."
Baquet acknowledges that he was often caricatured as calmer than a "bitchy" Abramson — a caricature he disagrees with. It's hard to imagine what the caricature would look like if it had been Abramson who had punched a wall in full view of the staff and then gone home.
Of course, these anecdotes are only small windows into life at the Times, and it's possible that Abramson was truly terrible as a boss. That said, if the most damning anecdotes there are about Abramson's management style concerned her snapping at underlings, it does raise the question of exactly why she was perceived as so difficult, and if a man would have been seen similarly.
During this period, Abramson found she was being paid substantially less than her (male) predecessor, Bill Keller. Ken Auletta reports that she went as far as having a lawyer speak to Times executives on her behalf. The Times, meanwhile, claims that Abramson's compensation was "directly comparable" to Keller's, though a lot can be hiding in the nuances of the language here.
What we can say with certainty is that there was clearly a confrontation over her pay. And though we may never know whether it led in any way to her dismissal, this bit of the story also echoes one of the key issues in the gender wage gap discussion today: pay transparency. Equal pay advocates argue that workers should be able to ask about pay policies without fear of retaliation, and that this could help close the pay gap.
The story will of course be untangled and scrutinized ad nauseum over the coming days. But at first blush Abramson's tenure is a perfect storm of everything ugly about becoming a woman boss, from the wage gap to the glass cliff to the gender stereotypes that afflict female leaders.
Update. This story was updated to include that Sklar is also the founder of TheLi.st.