After Abramson: Leaning In, Falling Out

After Abramson: Leaning In, Falling Out

The ouster of the Times' first female executive editor holds lessons for Jewish organizations.

The conversation about women’s leadership has flared up again, both inside and outside the Jewish world, after the abrupt dismissal, with minimal explanation, of the New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.  She was the first woman to hold that position, and she serves as a cautionary tale for those of us “leaning in” hard and for those who argue that leaning in is all it takes.

As a lifelong feminist, Jewish communal leader, and incoming Executive Director of the Jewish Women's Archive, I'm encouraged that we’re talking about this, because it indicates a growing recognition of the essential role of women's leadership in building a strong community.

But I’m also frustrated, because the hand-wringing seems to pay scant attention to the structural obstacles to women’s leadership, highlighting instead issues of women’s confidence and ambition.

The Abramson case should draw our attention to the social context of women’s inequality. For example, the explanation of Abramson’s failure as a leader falls back on the vocabulary most often wielded against women in positions of power: Her style has been critiqued as “pushy,” “brusque,” and “overly aggressive.” These terms are rarely, if ever, used as negative descriptors of male leaders. Their misogyny is also overlaid with a patina of anti-Semitism, since these terms are most closely associated with the stereotype of the Jewish woman.

This critique of Abramson’s leadership illustrates how women are judged by an impossible double standard: In order to ascend to the highest echelons of power, they must adhere to male definitions of ambition and success — leaning in, working long hours, even assuming physical postures that mimic male stances. But when they exhibit characteristics traditionally associated with men and aligned with leadership success (e.g. demanding high standards) and forgo more “feminine” traits of maternal gentleness and compassion, they are reviled as pushy and aggressive. God forbid a woman leader should show vulnerability by crying in public, but woe also to she who displays her strength by speaking sharply!

Such contradictory expectations are also apparent in the issue of pay equity, which may have played a role in Abramson’s dismissal. Recent articles have argued that the persistent gender wage gap results from women’s reticence to negotiate higher salaries or to ask for raises (thus conveniently placing the blame on women’s behavior). But research also indicates that women who advocate for themselves when it comes to salary are not viewed favorably. The limited evidence available thus far in the Abramson case – that she discovered inequity in her compensation compared to that of her predecessor and that she approached the powers-that-be about this gap not long before she was fired – seems to bear out this unfortunate reality.

As a feminist, I hope that women’s entrance into positions of power will ultimately help to expand and redefine the ideal workplace and society as a whole. At the same time, I don't count on it, because neither biological nor social experiences of femaleness necessarily determine one’s behavior. In other words, women are not essentially better than men, and expecting them to be so is unfair and unrealistic. Thus, while we should not excuse the leadership failings of women, neither should we judge them by a different standard than we do male leaders.

When women leaders do introduce new models, however, we should make sure to notice and honor them for their innovation. This strikes me as yet another way in which the evaluation of Jill Abramson’s leadership style seems flawed. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has referenced Abramson’s failures as a manager to defend his decision to fire her. But her female colleagues have spoken up about her strength as a mentor to younger women at the Times — a managerial strength that Sulzberger was either unaware of or considered unimportant.

The firing of Abramson should matter to the Jewish community not because she's a Jewish woman but because the troubling challenges and double standards suggested by this case exist in our communal organizations, too. A leadership survey conducted by the Jewish Daily Forward in 2013 found that women still comprise only 13.5 percent of executive leaders in Jewish communal organizations; only five women appear in the top 50 earners of Jewish communal executives. Moreover, if we expect our institutions to uphold and promote Jewish values, we must pay attention to the dignity of employees (even those in the upper rungs). One of the most striking aspects of Abramson’s dismissal is the abrupt way in which it was carried out. In the removal of Abramson’s predecessor Howell Raines (due to a scandal much more definite than the vague charges against Abramson), he was given a warm send off. In sharp contrast, Abramson was dismissed without an opportunity to address her colleagues or any recognition of the successes – and there were many – of her tenure.

Finally, if we intend to do more than pay lip service to creating communities that cultivate all potential leaders irrespective of gender, we must continually ask ourselves: Do our institutions value and support women in ways that allow them to lead? Do we hold realistic expectations and evaluate all managers based on performance and results, not only a “likeability index?” Are we developing a pipeline of diverse leadership, or merely selecting token leaders and waiting for them to fail? Though the Abramson case offers few answers at this point, it may help us articulate more clearly the essential questions.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is the incoming Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive. She also serves on the faculty of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

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