by Lesley Gold
Madeline Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” I’m not sure I’m ready to shack up with Satan, but if Albright is right I’m going to have all of eternity to work on my tan.
Last week, Jill Abramson was abruptly fired from her post at The New York Times. The media blitz that ensued blasted The Times on charges of wage discrimination, cronyism and sexism. The Feminist army took up the cause. “She was fired because people thought she was a ‘bitch,’” one woman said to me, disgusted. I may get my special place in hell for saying this, but it seems Abramson was fired because she wasn’t doing a great job.
On the day the Abramson news broke, I read Ken Auletta’s first piece “Why Jill was Fired,” in the New Yorker. Auletta stated that Abramson was being shoved out the door because she was considering a lawsuit over her compensation. But worse, she did not show the proper decorum and deference to her male bosses. Like most women, I focused on the pay discrepancy and not so subtle charges of sexism. I wondered if this account was true. Was Abramson’s firing a woman thing?
But the snowball of feminist outrage had already succeeded in turning Jill Abramson’s firing into a larger commentary about how women who are pushy and bossy in the workforce get quickly kicked to the curb. The meme seemed to be that Abramson was in fact terminated because around colleagues and staff she was a tough taskmaster who didn’t mind running over anyone who stood in her way, traits we admire and respect in men holding similar positions.
The story of one woman’s performance became a cautionary tale for all women. In what was a misguided show of support, many women readily latched on to the narrative that Abramson was a woman wronged.
Kara Swisher, a woman I admire (and obviously an admirer of Abramson) wrote a blog post titled “Dear Jill: From One Pushy Media Dame to Another.” Swisher questioned the gender bias in The Times’ dismissal and defended the positivity of pushiness. Swisher even says that “being a pain in the ass” and “aggressive” are essential traits for a successful journalist.
I don’t know what character traits other people are teaching their kids but bossy and pushy are not high on my list. Empathy has a place in this world and in the workplace, and so do compassion, boldness and vision. Leaders that succeed today don’t run over their employees, they lift them up.
I wish we Feminists would stop reclaiming and running PR campaigns around odious traits that revolve around toughness and combativeness. We seem to want to make the case that women have every right to be just as big of jerks as men. In rushing to support each other and the Feminist cause, are we going to end up embracing and idolizing behavior we loathe in men?
Jill Abramson didn’t fail at her job because she was a woman. She failed because she was human. It turns out that in her effort to be tough and assertive, she overstepped her responsibility to inform and include her bosses in senior hiring decisions.
Great men have failed at the post she held. Abramson’s male predecessor was fired largely because he too was a gruff, difficult personality who didn’t much care about getting along with others. Maybe the lesson in this for young women executives is that getting along with colleagues and superiors doesn’t make you a weak pushover. It makes you a smarter, more powerful leader.
In her Wake Forest commencement speech Abramson talked about resilience. She is resilient. She failed, but she will pick herself up, dust herself off, learn something from this and do better next time. We should honor Abramson’s achievements by not making excuses for her mistakes.
When Abramson was appointed to her post at The Times, women celebrated. We did not say she got the job because she was a woman. We said she got this job because she deserved it. Give Abramson the same respect we gave her when she was hired. Say she got fired, not because she was a woman, but because she deserved it.