Skip to content

How Jill Abramson’s Firing Harms Women. It’s Not What You Think


The reasons for the firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson were as schadenfreude-inducing as one could imagine. Here’s that justification, in case you missed it, per the New Yorker:

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, who spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, had been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, which accounted 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.

While it’s great sport to watch the New York Times, which has published numerous stories on the “wage gap”, get bitten by their own nonsense, there’s a real problem underlying all this. The problem is that if Jill was great at her job, she wouldn’t have been fired. Instead, the Abramson story demonstrates the problem with women demanding a different set of rules in the workplace.

Clearly no employer should discriminate based on age, gender or race, or sexual orientation. Successful employers wouldn’t do that anyway. They are in the business of recruiting and retaining the best people.  Employers also need to be able to mentor, promote, provide positive and negative performance feedback candidly and if necessary fire a bad employee.  Can a manager do that effectively with an additional threat of reprisal?  Many do anyway, but they do so at a greater risk financially both for themselves and the company.

If the perception is that every time a woman gets a top position in a company and there is justification to fire her, a company must manage additional consequences, the risk will be greater to hire a woman into a visible position of authority.  The good intentions that led to the creation of protected classes may be the precise thing that is now contributing counterproductively to inhibiting upward mobility.

The creation of groups with additional regulatory and legal risk obligations are intended to protect and promote. But in reality, they create new burdens that can inhibit success and results in a new form of differential treatment. Take this candid response from a male manager:

We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.

As an employee, this can be damaging to personal growth. How often are women missing out on valid feedback because of the exact fear expressed above? Any time people use “sexism” as a stand in for any difference of opinion, they foster an image that women cannot manage critical feedback effectively. While sexism may still exist, the question is whether insisting that women require special advantages — granted not by merit but by government intervention — does anything to diminish it. If women choose the protections of external policy instead of a more competitive environment where their own abilities can be questioned just like anyone else’s, they will create an atmosphere that contributes to the inhibition of their own career growth. They may miss out on being mentored or experience delays in promotions. This seems unfair — but if women find success in falling back on crying “sexism”, the risk is higher for the company if they move a woman into a promotional position too soon.  The logical response for a company is to avoid such an error.

Making it less risky for a company to promote, mentor, hire and fire men incentivizes the promotion of men over women. Worse, if you create a situation where if men fail, feedback can be provided without fear of retribution, men are in a position of learning to “fail well” that women are not.

Megan McArdle, in The Upside of Down, notes the importance of failure and how failing well contributes to success:

Nobody likes to fail, yet failure is a ubiquitous element of our lives. According to Megan McArdle, failing often — and well — is an important and healthy source of learning for individuals, organizations, and governments. Although failure is critical in coping with complex environments, our cognitive biases often keep us from drawing the correct lessons and adjusting our behavior. Our psychological aversion to failure can compound its undesirable effects, McArdle argues, and transform failures into catastrophes.

Now obviously there are egregious cases that occur infrequently, and people rightly should object to those. But making the lazy conclusion of sexism in the case of Abramson’s compensation only does harm, turning an individual failure into a broader social catastrophe. Compensation decisions at Abramson’s level are complex and she wasn’t going broke:

As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was reportedly $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and — only after she protested — was raised again to $525,000.

This is hardly sexism at work. If you were promoted, your compensation may not match the previous experienced person in the role precisely because they had been performing in that role for years.  There are many complicated and logical reasons compensation can vary, and sexism isn’t the primary reason for them.

Every time a woman attributes a setback to sexism without evaluating their role in failure, that woman has decided to shut her mind to personal growth. Every person now trumping up this “injustice” are only communicating to the greater world that hiring women carries significant risk and harms corporate decision making.  If women insist on making their employment carry significantly more risk for a company, taking a moment to look in the mirror will serve women better than shaking a fist at a “glass ceiling.” The old glass ceiling is gone — but women have constructed a new one, entirely of their own making.

Follow Amy on Twitter.