‘What do you think of the Jill Abramson firing?” my dentist asked as she pressed a long scary needle into my gum to numb the tooth she was about to drill. “Ouch!” I cried, from the instant pain of the needle — and the lingering pain of the firing.
As most everybody knows, Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, was summarily fired on May 14 by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the newspaper. At first he simply told the newsroom that the paper needed new leadership and that managing editor Dean Baquet would replace Abramson, after her less than three-year tenure as the paper’s head. In no time, her name was removed from the Times masthead, and all her connections to the paper severed. A few days later, Sulzberger elaborated on the firing by citing complaints from her colleagues about her “arbitrary decision-making” and “failure to consult” others.
Since then, many stories have surfaced about the abrupt and humiliating way the paper ousted Abramson and the reasons behind it. Apparently she angered Sulzberger by hiring a lawyer to investigate her claim that she was being paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller. The Times has denied a pay discrepancy, but the facts remain unclear. According to another report, she didn’t tell Baquet that she had hired Janine Gibson as a deputy managing editor alongside him to pursue the paper’s digital efforts. An angry Baquet complained to Sulzberger, precipitating Abramson’s firing. Again, it is hard for outsiders to evaluate what really happened. What is not hard to determine and what has riled many women and some men, has been what appears to be — still — a double standard in the treatment of women and men in the workplace.
It is old news that language describing personality traits differs according to gender: women are “pushy,” men “ambitious”; women “aggressive,” men “determined”; women “brusque,” men “direct.” Golda Meir has been criticized as self-righteous; Moshe Dayan admired for his self-confidence. From all reports, Abramson was a difficult boss, and staff members grumbled about her. But so was A.M. Rosenthal difficult, and he reigned as executive editor of the Times for 17 years. Another executive editor, Howell Raines, terrorized his staff, but was forced out only because of a plagiarism scandal involving one of his reporters. And Sulzberger gave him a warm sendoff when he left. If Abramson ruffled feathers, she also collected eight Pulitzer prizes for her paper, increased ad revenues substantially and became a hero to young women, whom she mentored and encouraged in the newsroom.
Last week, on Shavuot, we read in synagogue about an early Jewish hero, Ruth, who treated her mother-in-law, Naomi, with loving-kindness. For centuries Ruth represented the ideal for women to emulate. She was modest, gentle and obedient. She was also courageous, going into the fields alone to seek out Boaz, the man who would protect her and Naomi. Yet, as women before and after her have done, she won her man’s affection by demurely using her womanly wiles, never threatening or overtly challenging, consistently placing herself submissively in his care. Over the past decades, women have moved far from the self-effacing Ruth. They have taken on high-powered jobs in business and politics, education and the arts. Yet that idealized image of them as dependent, feminine, warm and fuzzy, has remained embedded in the collective consciousness.
On a dangerous level that embedded image of women has made them prey to certain kinds of men, who expect them to be passive and conforming. The recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people because he felt rejected by women, opened a national conversation about the distorted, sexist views plenty of men still hold. That includes men in the Jewish community and outside it who abuse their wives, because they demand total docility from these women.
On an everyday, professional level, women may have crashed through the glass ceiling, but they still haven’t changed the culture — even in that rarified realm. People still expect women to be likeable and non-threatening, less openly ambitions than men. The Times did not fire Jill Abramson because she is a woman; Sulzberger was happy to name a woman as executive editor and viewed it as a historic event, just as he is now happy have in Baquet the first African-American executive editor. Unfortunately, Abramson was not the kind of woman he wanted. She was outspoken, brash and demanding. She wanted equal pay with men and was willing to go to bat for that. Would a man have been fired for the same behavior she displayed? A lot of women think not, and that is why so many reacted to her firing with shock, anger and despair, as my dentist did, as I did.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.