Politico ruffled some feathers this week when it published a piece on Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, that had many questioning whether the story would have been written if she was a man.
The “Turbulence at The Times” story, written by Politico’s Dylan Byers and relying heavily on anonymous sources, argues that the Times’ first female executive editor is “on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.” She is described throughout the piece as “brusque,” “condescending,” “uncaring,” and “blunt,” though “few doubt her wisdom or her experience.” According to the article, she has a “nasal car honk” voice and she travels a lot (often she’s required). And once she told an editor to change a home page photo in the middle of a meeting by stating, “I don’t know why you’re still here. If I were you, I would leave now and change the photo.”
Many took Politico to task via Twitter and other platforms regarding the perceived sexism of the piece. Twitter comments included those from writer Lisa McIntire who said, “I struggle to find any specific behavior of Abramson’s that is critiqued here other than the tone of her voice” and feminist author Jessica Valentia who said, “This breathtakingly sexist Politico article does all but accuse Jill Abramson of attracting bears with her period” (See there other Twitter comments here and here). Hanna Rosin, writing for Slate, argued that the piece is “pretty thin” and “possibly sexist.” Emily Bell in the Guardian wrote, “The lame nature of the reporting suggests it might be better just to ignore the piece entirely, but it deserves attention, as it fuels an exasperating and wholly sexist narrative about women in power.”
Some have pointed out that numerous Times’ (male) editors have been criticized over the years. Byers responded to some of the criticism (specifically Bell’s) and stated that he “spoke with more than a dozen staffers from across the newsroom, male and female, old and young. They all voiced similar complaints, and said that those complaints were deeply felt and widespread.”
However, the difference with this piece, as Jessica Bennett argues on Jezebel, is that it’s not a story about her competence, but instead is about her “likability” in a leadership position. Several authors pointed to research in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, that talks about how for women success and likeability are negatively correlated. For women in leadership, this “double bind” plays out often, Sandberg writes on page 41 of her book, “When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is ‘not well-liked’ by her peers.”
Sandberg and others point to the Heidi/Howard case study which found that just changing the name (and, therefore, the sex) of the leader described altered people’s perceptions – he was more appealing and she was selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for” (Sandberg, p. 40). As a result, many questioned whether the same story would have been written or if Abramson would be perceived the same way if her name were “Joe” or “Jack” instead of “Jill.” (For an interesting piece comparing descriptions, see Ann Friedman’s “If Jill Abramson where a man…“).
Also in response to Politico’s piece, media critic Erik Wemple published an equally sourced piece arguing that Politico’s “men’s club” has its own gender issues to worry about.
As for Abramson herself, in an email sent to Rosin she responded by sharing her horoscope from the day of the article, “You will need to put on a brave face today, especially if you get news that seems to be the opposite of what you were hoping to hear. The important word there is “seems,” because most likely it IS good news after all.”
Here is a round-up of articles on Politico’s piece:
-Jill Abramson: ‘Very Unpopular’ Or Just Doing Her Job? (Huffington Post)
-If Jill Abramson were a man… (by Ann Friedman)
-What If Jill Abramson Were Joe? (Jezebel)
-Reporting on industry gossip: How Politico should have reported the “turbulence” at The New York Times (Columbia Journalism Review)
-Newsroom B*tches, An Appreciation (by Debra PIckett)
-The double bind for Jill Abramson and other women at the top (Washington Post)
-Can Politico spot gender issues? (by Erik Wemple at the Washington Post)