Sisterhood Blog

Was Jill Abramson Pushed Off 'Glass Cliff'?

By Sarah Seltzer

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The media world, and particularly its women, were scandalized by the abrupt ouster of former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first female to hold the position, and her replacement by Dean Baquet, who as of yesterday is the first African-American in the spot.

It was a sudden and rather undignified announcement for Abramson, and immediately suspicions arose on Twitter that the story was an example of the Glass Cliff, in which women get promoted to top leadership positions when companies are already in dire straits — which leads them to take the fall right off the cliff if things don’t improve, or even if they try to shake things up. The question immediately surfaced: would Abramson’s “leadership in the newsroom,” her alleged fatal flaw, have been tolerated if it was Jay Abramson instead?

Adding fuel to the fire, several reports have suggested that the final straw for Abramson in the eyes of her superiors was her negotiating for a higher wage, one equal to her predecessor Bill Keller. These and other stories don’t reduce it to a single incident though, drawing a more complex picture of internal politics, jockeying and dissent, including complaints that Abramson was “pushy” and “combative,” two terms that are loaded when used for female leadership.

Often, I find inside-baseball media gossip both offensively insular and irresistibly juicy. And yet in this case the speculation feels the opposite of that status quo. Instead, this Times dethroning is playing out as the reflection of an all-too-common, not particularly salacious problem that faces female leaders everywhere. That’s why the outrage on social media made sense — it came from women fed up with a subtly constraining work environment, at least when they’re not coming up against overt sexism. Women journalists feel caught between a “pushy” rock and a “pushover” soft place — and they can’t win. According to the Atlantic, the science bears this predicament out.

“Economists have suggested that one factor driving the gender wage gap is that women “don’t ask” for as much money in negotiations. The implication is, then, that women should ask, since they supposedly have nothing to lose. But both social-science research and real-life job sagas have shown that women sometimes do pay a price for self-advocating. “

Don’t ask and you’ll linger. Ask and, like Abramson apparently did, you’ll lose.

Drama at the office, I’ve learned in my decade in the working world, can arise at a nexus of interpersonal, political, and organizational conflict. It’s hard at times to extricate the three factors. Yet it’s also hard not to see gendered dimensions when pieces about yesterday’s ouster include the sentence: “The two men and Abramson clearly did not get along.”


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