What If Jill Abramson Were Joe?

Whatever people actually think of her in the newsroom, here are a few of the words used to describe the New York Times’ first female editor in 160 years in a 1,700-word Politico profile:

  • Difficult
  • Condescending
  • Stubborn
  • Brusque
  • Impossible

In the piece, about newsroom turbulence under Jill Abramson’s reign, we learn quickly that problem with Abramson is not her lack of skill — in fact, she is praised again and again as a top notch journalist and “incredible” editor — but rather, it’s her “temperament.”

She is “brusque.” She has a “nasal car honk” voice that bothers some staffers. She travels a lot, often at the request of her bosses. Once, she asked a photo editor to change a photo on the homepage in the middle of a meeting. All of which leads a bevy of anonymous staffers to conclude: “The Times is leaderless right now.”

I don’t know Jill Abramson. I don’t know her temperament, or how how turbulent her newsroom is or isn't (though I’m pretty sure any newsroom is a pretty turbulent place these days). What I do know, from reading this piece, is that Jill Abramson does not punch holes through walls (at least not that we know of). What I know is that ordering a photo editor to haul ass and change a homepage image is standard in any newsroom. What I know is that newspaper editors yell, swear, point fingers, slam keyboards, throw phones. One editor I know once slapped the hand of a subordinate who dared to reach across and touch the editor's keyboard. I know of another who made interns call him “God” — and he’s gone on to great success. The obvious point, of course, is that most of these editors are men.


Granted, there are plenty of male editors who've been trashed in print over the years, as the Washington Post points out. But here’s the problem with Politico and Jill Abramson: This isn’t a story about Abramson's competence as an editor. (To the contrary, Abramson has brought in four Pulitzers; Politico notes that “few doubt her wisdom or experience.") Its thesis, that there's turmoil in the newsroom, is — as Hanna Rosin notes in Slate — thin. Which means that when you boil it down, this is actually story about how "likable" Jill Abramson is as a leader — and particularly, as a female leader. It's textbook stereotyping, down to the words used to describe her style and the way her detractors confirm her competence in the same breath that they rip apart her personality.

Here's what the research shows: Women in power are scrutinized doubly because they’re women. With every action, every order, every command, they must prove their competence — because we expect them to fail as women. And yet, even when women leaders indeed prove their competence, they are punished for exhibiting those same traits we expect a male leader to possess. When men lead, we see their assertiveness as "bold" and "forceful." But when women lead, their assertiveness is deemed "bossy"; their directness "brusque."

Studies reinforce this point again and again. In one, at Columbia, researchers presented business students with the story of a two successful entrepreneurs: Heidi and Howard. While both Heidi and Howard were rated as "competent" and "worthy of respect," Heidi was viewed as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” It turned out Heidi and Howard were both Heidi Rozen — a real-life entrepreneur.

The double standard is powerful enough to excuse a man who physically assaults a wall but indict a woman who dares tell people what to do.

There are plenty of ways women can try adjust for these biases — trying to make themselves more "approachable," as one Times staffer wished Abramson would be, to appear more "nice." And yet, that won't work either — because women who make adjustments to be viewed as more "likable" are deemed less competent all over again, their feminine warmth deemed "soft."

In other words, women in power face a constant balancing act: Be "approachable," but not soft; assertive, but not "condescending." They are expected to make the tough calls, but not so far that they'll be deemed as not having the right "temperament" for the job. As Abramson’s own wall-punching managing editor puts it: "I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer.”

Now if Jill were Joe, would we still be having this conversation?

Jessica Bennett is a former Newsweek staffer and, until last week, the executive editor of Tumblr.

Image via Getty.