What If Jill Abramson Was a Man?

Was there an unfair and sexist assumption that Abramson would be more "caring"?

In this photo released by The New York Times, Thursday, June 2, 2011, are newly-appointed managing editor Dean Baquet, left, newly-appointed executive editor Jill Abramson, center, and Bill Keller, who is stepping aside as executive editor, in New York. Keller, who presided over the newsroom during a time of enormous change within the industry, will stay on as a full-time writer for The New York Times Magazine and the newspaper's Sunday opinion and news section, the Times announced Thursday. Abramson, who will take her position Sept. 6, will become the first woman to hold the newspaper's top editing post. Baquet, now an assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief at the paper, will succeed Abramson as managing editor.

The venerable New York Times has just won four Pulitzer prizes. Surely, there must be something wrong with its editor-in-chief, Jill Abramson.

That was the gist of an article about Abramson, the paper's first female editor, in Politico this week. The paper's profile of Abramson quoted staffers who called her brusque, "uncaring" and a little hard on the staff.

If that's what it takes to win four Pulitzers, good for Abramson. But as so often happens with evaluations of women in powerful positions, Abramson wasn't being criticized for her knowledge, competence or ability to direct a newsroom into major prize-winning mode. She was being criticized for her personality – or, as it is euphemistically (and dishonestly) called, her "management style."

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Was Abramson being unfairly being slammed because she is female? Politico reporter Dylan Byers, who wrote the original story, admirably considers the question in a later column, and concludes that his sources were being frank about Abramson without regard to her gender. In fact, the later column notes, there's something a little sexist about the suggestion that a woman should not be evaluated on her demeanor and management style in the same way as a man.

That's absolutely true (and again, props to Byers for the sincere self-examination). But it misses another point: whether staffers assumed that Abramson would express her emotions in a more "female" way – Crying, perhaps? Making cookies for reporters who had worked particularly hard? – than the manner in which she has conducted herself.

Managing editor Dean Baquet, for example, walked out of a meeting with Abramson so frustrated that he slammed his fist into a wall, Politico reported. Was that justified, as several reporters said? Or a macho display that would not have been tolerated from a female editor?

Staffers told Byers that Baquet surely was provoked. What would they have said if Abramson had done the same thing – that she was overcome by hormones?

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The reality, as most of us who have worked in newsrooms know, is that wall-punching and similar behavior is not that uncommon at a newspaper. It's a rough-and-tumble environment to begin with, full of people who got hired because of – and not in spite of – the fact that they question authority. And the constant deadlines and competitive pressure test everyone's limits.

The question here is whether there was an unfair and sexist assumption that Abramson would automatically be more "caring" simply because she is female. Abramson was criticized for going to Cuba to arrange accreditation for her reporters just days before several editor left with buyouts. So what? It's not as though she fired them over the phone from Havana. They took a buyout, the paper kept going, and Abramson kept doing her job. Most foreign correspondents would be thrilled that the editor-in-chief would go to such lengths to get them credentials.

Abramson is an editor. Editors can be tough. The best ones I've had have been tough on me – not gratuitously so, but to maintain standards of excellence. Has Abramson done that? Four Pulitzers suggest she has.

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