Jill Abramson’s firing highlights important issues facing working women

 

On June 2, 2003, I was named editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and became — as Jill Abramson did later at The New York Times — the first female editor in a storied institution’s hundred-year-plus history. In November 2006, I achieved another distinction that Abramson last week came to share. I was fired after a tenure of only about three years.

The difference in the public reaction to those events tells me something both wonderful and terrible about what has changed in the world that working women inhabit.

Terrible because, whatever the facts of Abramson’s departure, it exposed in a raw way the reservoirs of resentment, hurt and mistrust that women feel at work.

Wonderful, because it is clear that something fundamental has changed in just those seven short years. Women now feel not only resentful but also, finally, entitled: Entitled to lead. Entitled to be paid equally. Entitled to be flawed. Entitled to be fired, yes, but also entitled to point out the fact that to us seems so obvious: Men with even more spectacular and difficult flaws than ours get not only longer tenures but also much softer and more dignified landings.

I know Abramson, her successor, Dean Baquet, and Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher. I like and admire all three. I know absolutely nothing about what went on among them. This is not about them. It’s about me and other women like me and why this event hit like a lightning strike to dry tinder.

What experiences can I contribute? The first is what it is like to be fired in an unnecessarily unpleasant and hurtful way.

To be clear: I was never going to remain editor of the Inquirer after Knight Ridder, a legendary newspaper chain, sold the paper to a local business group headed by a PR guy. He told me quickly I would be replaced, but if I kept things running smoothly till he found a successor, he would make the transition easy.

A few weeks later, he informed me that my successor had been chosen and that, in two hours, it would be announced that I was being reassigned as a suburban columnist, an egregiously demeaning demotion. If I fought back, his chief lieutenant said, his boss would play hardball.

Is it any wonder that the narrative that sprang up after Abramson’s firing seemed so familiar to me? My path out was paved not with the face-saving transition that one saw for men removed from similar jobs at The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post but rather with the marshaling of evidence that I had caused this demotion myself — that I had lost the support of my peers and of the newsroom reporting to me. The same hints that I was difficult to work with. Remote. Aloof. Disconnected. Did I have those flaws? I guess. Were they worse than the flaws of the men who preceded and succeeded me? I doubt it.

I did what most self-respecting female leaders do: I blamed myself. I did negotiate, but barely (I didn’t become a suburban columnist; I did get a modest severance) and backed out quietly with gentle words about my successor. The stories didn’t use the word “fired.” The support I got from other women was muted and behind the scenes.

The second thing I know from experience is why the charge of unequal pay — that Abramson reportedly alleged and Sulzberger vigorously disputed — landed with such force. I have managed at five organizations over nearly 20 years. At each of them I saw women paid less than men in what I thought were identical positions.

Was everyone lying who said they were committed to equal pay? I came to believe not. It was worse than that. It became clear that we saw things differently. I saw two people who, I believed, were doing the same work but being paid unequally. Those above me saw a story and a history, something that they thought caused the man to deserve higher pay: This one had just stepped down from a senior position and taken his higher pay with him. That one had been hired from a higher-paying organization. Yet another had been offered a job with a competitor. How many women in the past decade have been promoted past their peers, only to see in the spreadsheets the sad evidence that their own stories were apparently not as persuasive?

So what caused the dam of silence to break? Why are women so openly furious about something that we barely noticed in the past? For one thing, there is now a growing body of women who — like Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In — are undeniably successful and not afraid to talk about their experiences as women. For another, there is the equally growing body of women like me, with whom stories like Abramson’s resonate because of our own experiences.

Whatever else happens as a result of Abramson’s firing, it has already begun the more difficult conversation about what we do when we lean in and it doesn’t work. This transparency will beget yet more transparency, which in turn will make it easier and less scary to look at the still difficult reality of female life at the top.

Amanda Bennett, a journalist and author, is a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Special to The Washington Post

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