Women breaking journalism’s glass ceiling: The ascent of Jill Abramson and others

The past two weeks have been filled with women moving up the ranks in journalism. Most barrier-shattering has been the announcement that Jill Abramson will be the new executive editor of The New York Times, the first woman to fill that spot in the paper’s 160-year history.

Many have noted and cheered the historic nature of the moment, including the women who sued the newspaper in 1974 over sex discrimination. Abramson noted that she “stands on the shoulders” of the women who came before her, and even acknowledged some by name during her speech before the Times’ staff.

Columnist Gail Collins, who herself broke a barrier at the Times by becoming its first female editorial page editor, noted how significant the moment is for women: “In this one great paper, maybe we’ve reached the ultimate goal of the entire women’s movement, which is to make it utterly normal for women to be everywhere, including the top.”

While Abramson’s appointment is good news for women, it’s not yet common across the board. Studies, like the “The Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media” by the International Women’s Media Foundation that came out earlier this year, have identified a general “glass ceiling” for women in U.S. newsrooms once they reach the senior management level, after which their presence falls from 41.5 percent to the 23.3 percent at the top-level management.

But, news like this can help facilitate positive steps forward in changing those percentages, as Poynter’s Jill Geisler suggests in a piece highlighting what Abramson’s appointment could mean for women in journalism. She says it can serve as inspiration and motivation to the many current female journalism students. “Seeing a woman lead a legacy institution into the digital future can be a powerful motivator,” she writes.

Abramson herself has given the nod to the value of her appointment to women in several interviews, but notes she felt it wasn’t as a result of her sex that she achieved the position.

“Number one, I know I didn’t get this job because I’m a woman; I got it because I’m the best qualified person. But nonetheless what it means to me is that the executive editor of the New York Times is such an important position in our society, the Times itself is indispensable to society, and a woman gets to run the newsroom, which is meaningful.” (The Guardian)

Abramson had been pegged as the “heiress-apparent” to replace outgoing executive editor Bill Keller and was described as such in a profile by New York Magazine last fall.

Some have asked whether her gender will have any effect on the newsroom or the paper. Time will tell, but in terms of content and based on her interest in “hard-edged” in-depth investigative stories and international stories, she’s said, “I don’t think anyone is fearful that I’m going to bring soft news on to the front page” (Via the Guardian). And some stories, including this one from Politico, noted the Abramson’s toughness has often been referred to using “masculine” describers. Those include comments like, “She’s got more balls than the New York Yankees.”

However, others have pointed out ways in which feminism, particularly through her writing projects, has always been part of Abramson’s career, including a piece from The Nation calling her a “feminist journalist.”

Outside of her gender, conversation also circled around what her appointment would mean for innovation and for digital advancement. Most reports, including those from Times insiders via Twitter (like this one), have said this move will be positive. Abramson launched her Twitter account Thursday with a humorous exchange with Felix Salmon of Reuters who had predicted she wouldn’t start tweeting until she takes over in September. Her response? “Wrong!”

Moving up and moving on

Aside from Abramson, several other women have been on the move this month. Here are a few:

  • Vivian Schiller, who was forced out as NPR chief executive in March, has been appointed the chief digital officer of NBC News, a newly created position.
  • Katie Couric signed a multi-year contract with ABC to host a new daytime talk show. She will also serve as a contributor to several ABC News programs. Couric recently finished out her contract as “CBS Evening News” anchor, a position that broke barriers by making her the first woman to solo anchor a weekday evening news program on a major network.
  • Susie Ellwood, currently chief executive of the Detroit Media Partnership, was named executive vice president and general manager of USA Today.
  • Also in Gannett Co., Janet Hasson was named president and publisher of The Journal News. She was formerly senior vice president/audience development and strategy for the Detroit Media Partnership, publisher of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.


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