Abramson firing a case study in gender bias


Jill Abramson 

Richard Connor

More than once in my career, I have offered a woman a job and she has accepted, only to nervously add: “It may change your mind, but there is something you should know.”

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It’s the sort of comment that puts you on edge. Then came the something:

“I’m pregnant.”

It’s been trendy for a number of years now for men to announce an impending birth with the insufferably cute, “We’re pregnant.”

Sorry, bub. “We” are not pregnant. Your wife is.

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Strange, isn’t it, that I’ve never had a man before or after saying he wanted a job tell me his wife was pregnant and suggest that maybe I’d want to rescind the offer?

Strange at first blush, maybe, but not strange at all when you really think about it. It’s a commonplace symbol of the inequity that women face in the workplace, day after day and year after year.

Once, when I became the chief executive of a company not far from home, I discovered that in one of the company’s departments virtually every woman made less than a male counterpart.

The disparity in how women are treated in American business on all rungs of the ladder is appalling. Even when progress is made, it doesn’t last.

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When I became president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1986, there were no women vice presidents of the company. I hired three in a few short years. The CFO, the director of marketing and the editor all were women.

You know how many women are on the masthead now? At last check: None.

Discrimination is rampant. It exists in small companies and it exists in larger, publicly held firms that are considered prestigious. News folks are born gossips. They live to be in the know and they love trading information. So, they often obsess over industry issues that few people in the public care about.

Case in point is the May 14 firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. The story spread like wildfire, dominating newspapers, magazines, TV newscasts and the ubiquitous, insatiable, online blogosphere. Less than a week after getting the boot, she delivered the commencement address at Wake Forest University.

The media parsed the speech almost word for word, as if it might contain some secret message or code about life, afterlife, or the location of the missing Malaysian jet.

The firing of a newspaper editor is not a big deal in the whole scheme of things. Women and men in business are fired every day of the week. The only thing most people care about is preservation of their own job.

For those of us in journalism, this story was what’s often termed “inside baseball.” Only baseball fanatics care about the minute statistical data that pours forth on sports websites, or the mystical intricacies explored in the book and movie Moneyball. The rest of us just want the score.

But the story about The Times and its deposed editor had drama. It had intrigue. A popular editor who worked for Abramson at The Times stabbed her in the back while dinning out in the big city with the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose family has controlled The Times for decades. His late father, Arthur Sr., was called “Punch;” this one is often referred to as “Pinch.”

What else do you need to know about a world where genes matter more than brains, and cute-if-disparaging nicknames are attached to men who casually inherit their powerful daddies’ important jobs?

Well, here’s one thing. Old “Punch” never knew how to throw one until a woman, The Washington Post’s late publisher Katherine Graham, taught him. She took on the feared newspaper pressman’s union when it struck her paper and she drove it into the ground, mashed it through the press like a roll of newsprint.

And then she took on President Richard Nixon and the White House in pursuit of a story about that little late-night burglary we came to know and love as “Watergate.”

Graham showed the Sulzbergers how to use the family jewels, and that does not refer to The Times.

The new Sulzberger is never described as bright or inspirational or innovative. Last summer, he sold The Boston Globe for $70 million – 20 years after his family bought it for $1.1 billion. In his latest botched attempt to lead, Sulzberger was apparently bullied while at dinner with then-managing editor Dean Baquet, who was threatening to leave the company over his disappointment in Abramson.

So, Sulzberger fired Abramson and promoted Baquet to replace her, citing complaints about Abramson’s management style and describing her methods as pushy and confrontational. My God. People even said she was brusque.

A hard-ass, brusque editor? What, pray tell, were they thinking? Maybe Pinch should watch some old movies about newspapermen and women.

Hmmm. I wonder if former GE boss Jack Welch, to name one successful and much-admired male executive, was ever accused of being brusque and confrontational. Here’s a hint: They used to call him “Neutron Jack,” a nickname reportedly owing its origin to a Welch business plan that involved massive downsizing. But I’d wager that the term “neutron” had another meaning as well.

Look. The Times and Sulzberger can hire and fire anyone they want. They own the joint.

But for The Times, of all media, to outright lie is outrageous. If you read only The Times, which was basically a sin I committed in the early days of this story, you came away with the impression that Abramson was a management problem Sulzberger could no longer tolerate.

I’ve been around long enough to detect that she was being held to a different standard than many men who are the boss and are pushy, brusque, bossy, confrontational, aloof, overly ambitious … well, you get the picture.

Eventually, though, someone directed me to other news sources and I learned that shortly after Abramson was promoted to executive editor she discovered her salary was lower than her male predecessor’s and those of other men in similar roles at The Times.

She complained and even hired a lawyer to represent her in the matter.

So, you know why this story is not just inside baseball? Because it’s playing out on the national stage and it’s a morality play about gender discrimination.

Whether Abramson was fired for challenging an unfair paycheck disparity or for a management style that is tolerated and often rewarded when the manager is a man – or some combination of the two – men as well as women all across America need to rise up against the inequality symbolized by her dismissal and fight it on every level.

One of the worst aspects of Sulzberger’s behavior is the hypocrisy it reveals on the part of the once-great newspaper he represents. The Times is the standard-bearer for liberal politics, progressive policy and virtually every other important social issue of our time.

That does not bother me. I know it when I see it and I can read beyond the obvious bias.

What bothers me is this: if you are going to talk the talk, then walk it. Or punch out. 

Richard Connor is CEO of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net.