Thursday, May 15, 2014

What would Sheryl Sandberg say about Jill Abramson's firing?

As a journalist who grew up reading the New York Times -- and as a woman whose interest in news and writing inspired her to become a journalist -- I’ve been following the coverage of Jill Abramson’s firing closely, looking for clues about why she was kicked out of the top position at the New York Times so abruptly on Wednesday. For those of you who aren’t quite as immersed in the insider-baseball world of print journalism, you can find a few good articles about the situation below:

Sultzberger Swings the Axe: Why He Fired Abramson

Jill Abramson Was Everything to Young Women at the New York Times

Jill Abramson Being Replaced as Top Editor at Times

Was Jill Abramson Fired After Complaining About Pay Discrimination?

In a nutshell:

As the news broke, the New York Times itself added fuel to the speculation fire, stating at the end of it’s first article about it that “the reasons for the switch were not immediately clear.” Politico, relying on two unnamed sources within the NYT newsroom, reported that the decision stemmed from “an issue with management in the newsroom.”

Other publications have offered up other possibilities. New York Magazine mentioned that Abramson recently found out she was being paid “considerably less” than her predecessor, Bill Keller. Several outlets have said that Abramson wasn’t interested enough in the Grey Lady’s digital and video initiatives. She reportedly incurred the wrath of newly appointed CEO Mark Thompson last year by sending a reporter to investigate his role in the Jimmy Savile scandal at the BBC after Thompson had agreed to join the Times (but before he his first day on the job). Her relationship with her boss, Times Company Chairman Arthur Sultzberger Jr., has been described as tense. The final straw, apparently, was her decision to recruit a co-managing editor without consulting her current managing editor.

And then there’s the unflattering 2013 portrait of Abramson published by Politico in which she was described as “stubborn and condescending” and “difficult to work with”; it also pointed out that while staffers agree she’s a skilled and experienced journalist, they “question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper.” Though some dismissed it as a hatchet job when it came out, others are turning to the Politico profile now as proof that Abramson had her abrupt dismissal coming.

It’s no surprise that the same qualities prized in male leaders are often derided in female ones -- if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “aggressive” or “bossy” instead of “goal-oriented” or “authoritative,” I could have retired comfortably in my mid-30s. Still, I’m hesitant to chalk Abramson’s firing up to gender issues or feminist failings. Her presence at the head of the New York Times table was inspiring to plenty of people, and the fact that she appointed a significant number of women to the masthead has expanded the perspective offered by the paper. And out of the ashes of this incident rises a phoenix of sorts: Managing Editor Dean Baquet was named as her successor, becoming the first African-American executive editor at the New York Times.

I’m pleased to see a person of color at the helm, of course, but as a woman I can’t help but wonder: What would Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg say about Abramson’s firing?

"Women are held back by many things. We're held back by bias, by lack of flexibility, by lack of opportunity," Sandberg said in the trailer for her book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." "We also hold ourselves back. We don't sit at the table, we don't raise our hands, we don't let our voices be loud enough."

So, lean in... just don’t fall over?

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