"Women make up about half of our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014 it's an embarrassment. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."
-- President Barack Obama, Jan. 28, 2014, State of the Union address.
In 2011, Jill Abramson achieved quite a milestone: She was named the first female executive editor of The New York Times.
In 2013, the news website Politico published a lengthy article quoting sources -- ALL of them anonymous -- saying that the first female executive editor of the New York Times was, among other things, "stubborn," "condescending," "unreasonable," "disengaged," (....wait, wasn't she just "stubborn"?) and "uncaring."
In 2014, according to one report in wide circulation this afternoon, the first female executive editor of the New York Times learned that she was not paid as much as the last male executive editor of the New York Times, and she had the temerity to ask her higher-ups in the corporate suite what they planned to do about that.
Today, Jill Abramson's male bosses did something...they fired her.
And here you thought that "Mad Men" ends around 1969....
The Times, in its public statements and in stories from its own befuddled reporters trying to piece together what happened, have given no cogent explanation of why Abramson was abruptly replaced with Dean Baquet, who'd been in the No. 2 post of managing editor.
As a result, the Abramson firing is quickly becoming the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 of media stories. Veteran journalist Ken Auletta of the New Yorker wrote what has quickly become the "ur" post on the topic. His suggested scenario is more than a little appalling:
As with any such upheaval, there’s a history behind it. Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect. Sulzberger is known to believe that the Times, as a financially beleaguered newspaper, needed to retreat on some of its generous pay and pension benefits; Abramson had also been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, having spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, accounting for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor “was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s”—though it was not actually the same. I was also told by another friend of Abramson’s that the pay gap with Keller was only closed after she complained. But, to women at an institution that was once sued by its female employees for discriminatory practices, the question brings up ugly memories. Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy. A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”
Auletta's account seems to be largely supported by the reporting of NPR's highly regarded media writer David Folkenflik, who wrote (interestingly, on Twitter) that "[e]ven though Abramson's appointment was based on journalistic merit, figures at Times wonder what role gender ultimately played in ouster...I can now report that I have independently confirmed that Abramson did indeed challenge corporate brass over what she saw as unequal pay."
Tonight, a Times spokesman, in a very Clintonesque style, is reporting that Abramson's pay is "not less" than predecessor Keller -- although are some reports that the gap had just been closed. Was Abramson given a raise as a precursor to getting fired? Stranger things have happened.
It's been reported that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told other editors that it wasn't a sign of sexism to oust the first female executive editor of the Times because male editors, like Howell Raines (who unlike Abramson presided over fundamentally dishonest coverage of the Iraq War, but I digress...) have also been ousted in the past. And that's right, in a way. But that will also ring completely hollow until the day that a) a top male executive suffers consequences for being "brusque" to his underlings as women bosses apparently still do and b) female employees, from the executive editor to the night cleaners, are paid the same amount for the same work as a man...period. Until that day, Jill Abramson's firing will reek of sexism. It reeks, period.
Part of the appeal of TV's "Mad Men" is that it shows women making real gains in the workplace -- but it also shows that progress against sexism is glacial. Today, kind of like Antarctica, the glaciers actually melted back a bit.
UPDATE: The Times' publisher came out today with this statement:
"It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors," Sulzberger wrote this afternoon in a memo to staff obtained by Capital. "Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors. In fact, in 2013, her last full year in the role, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010. It was also higher than his total compensation in any previous year.
"This Company is fully committed to equal treatment of all its employees, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or any other characteristic," the memo continued. "We are working hard to live up to that principle in every part of our organization. I am satisfied that we fully lived up to that commitment with regard to Jill."
None of that contradicts a) the reporting from Ken Auletta, David Folkenflik and others that she had recently confronted management about issues related to her pay and b) the possibility that her pay was boosted at the end of her Times tenure after lagging man doing equal jobs or less during all of the preceding time. At that level, there's a lot you can do with numbers -- but the stench of sexism in the way she was treated remains powerful. Amanda Marcotte has an excellent essay at Talking Points Memo.
And that’s why the Jill Abramson firing is having ripple effects outside of the immediate circles of media people talking about themselves and rich people gossiping about the lives of other rich people. This story, particularly in its current state of more-guessing-than-knowing, speaks to the deep, immoveable, and totally realistic fear many women have that there’s nothing they can do to overcome sexism in the workplace. They worry that they can lean in, do the dance, do the work, calibrate themselves, obsess over reading a room and figuring out the exact dosage of femininity required to work it, and it still won’t matter. Women worry that the single word “pushy” can destroy everything they’ve worked for. Abramson’s story suggests that they may not be paranoid to think it.