The Jill Abramson Example: Why We Still Hear About Powerful Women Getting Fired

Following former executive editor Jill Abramson’s ouster from The New York Times just last week, speculation ran rampant about the reasons behind her abrupt departure.

The first reports to emerge about her recent rift with NYT Publisher Arthur Sulzburger, Jr. cried sexism. Media outlets and journalist friends of Abramson attested that she was fired after questioning an apparent wage gap in the New York Times’ senior management structure. According to some, Abramson questioned her salary after learning that her predecessor, Bill Keller, earned more than she did during his tenure.

Sulzburger was quick to fire back against these claims, insisting that Abramson was actually compensated with 10 percent more than Keller in her final full year serving as the executive editor.

When pressure to list a reason for the unceremonious departure of Abramson just two years after she was hired to the position as the first female in the role, Sulzburger cited “mismanagement” and an abrupt workplace etiquette that he alleged lost her respect within the NYT newsroom.

The whole firing episode has turned into a he-said, she-said, with Abramson staying remarkably quiet on the entire incident. In a commencement speech delivered to Wake Forest University on Sunday, she talked about losing the job, but didn’t mention the specific motivations.

But Sulzburger’s is hardly the only narrative out there. Following her firing, women’s activists have begun analyzing the situation, and many have come to the unfortunate conclusion that this departure is just one more example of how women are penalized for certain, seemingly “masculine” behaviors when they enter into the workforce.

Using Sulzburger’s statement on Abramson as main evidence, many argue that Sulzburger’s stated motivations for termination still imply a sexist attitude, whether or not Abramson was actually being paid less.

Behaviors like the ones described when referring to Abramson, claim the critics, are only a bad thing when allegedly employed by a female leader. For male CEOs and other high-level managers, these behaviors are often normatively accepted, expected and even praised, when they’re seen as “strong” and “commanding.”

Evidence persists that Abramson was wrongfully terminated, and unfortunately she’s not the lone female leader to be let go under sketchy circumstances or with ill-supported reasons.

As The Washington Post reported, the first female CEO of Yahoo!, Carol Bartz, was also fired in a similarly acrimonious manner. Like Abramson, she had occupied her position for an uncharacteristically short period of time — a mere two months compared to Abramson’s two years.

Bartz and other women (like Le Monde’s Natalie Nougayrede and Hewlett Packard’s Carly Fiorina, to name a few other fired female power players) have found themselves victims of an unfortunate trend: Their hires and fires are ultimately more public and more questioned simply because of their gender. The addition of women to these positions are higher profile, and their ousters inevitably seem to hit harder.

But, unfortunately, it’d be shortsighted to look at the recent termination of Abramson without considering the fact that she is a female.

It seems like across the board, women leaders are more often targeted by their superiors and fellow senior-level colleagues when things go wrong or an argument arises.

A new report, for example, paints an uncertain future for the female professionals who have made it to the upper echelons in their fields. A Catalyst survey indicates that although women comprise just 3 percent of the top business leaders, their tenures tend to be shorter and more tumultuous than that of men. In addition, female CEOs are forced out of office at a higher rate than are man — 38 percent compared to 27 percent, respectively.

For female leaders, as Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in “Lean In,” it’s not enough to simply be a boss at your job — you have to worry about being liked. Because if not, you can be cast as the “bitch” — or what some might refer to in office speak as “unyielding,” “aggressive” and, now to quote Mr. Sulzburger, “arbitrary decision making.”

For women at the senior level, the notion of success (and perhaps the now-notorious statement of "having it all") has just gotten even more complicated. When we can't just do our best and be authoritative in management roles, what other markers can we use to ensure that we women are judged fairly in the workplace before being fired?

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