Was sexism or management style behind Jill Abramson’s firing?

Jill Abramson (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

Jill Abramson (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

The world of journalism was shaken up last week when Jill Abramson was fired from The New York Times. The abrupt discharge of the executive editor has many people in and outside the field of journalism wondering who’s at fault. While some are referring to the dismissal of the Times’ first woman executive editor as sexist, others are quick to point out Abramson’s brash management style and to call her out for not being a team player.

Despite the list of evidence that supports both arguments, the whole pandemonium between Abramson and The New York Times points to bad communication by both parties.

The modern executive
Today’s leaders are not only expected to have an innate ability to forecast and make quick decisions, but also be empathetic. During the presidential campaign of 2008, Hillary Clinton was perceived as controlling and less likeable than Barack Obama. With a few tears, Clinton quickly flipped that around; becoming more appealing after showing her human side. Supporters of Abramson claim that her assertive management style was no different than her male predecessor’s — the likes of Howell Raines and A. M. Rosenthal.

On the other hand, the men that came before Abramson were leaders in a time where there was tolerance for pushiness. Fiery tempers in a corporate huddle no longer denote a leader’s strength, but highlight his or her inability to manage pressure. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The New York Times’ publisher, in his yearly review of Abramson’s work, related to her that she could not continue mistreating people in the newsroom. Executives must keep in mind that being a considerate manager goes beyond a please or thank you. Instead, they should reflect that we live in a business world where shortcomings are not well received.

The art of escalating
Smart leaders know how to escalate their behavior to get their point noticed. It’s a skill that takes years to master, but can reward the executive with positive results. One of the most visible items in the gender argument is the fact that Abramson had a lower salary than her predecessor, Bill Keller. Abramson quickly (as she should have) complained about the salary discrepancy and hired an attorney.

By hiring legal help, Abramson expressed to Sulzberger the seriousness of the issue at hand; however, Sulzberger was probably put off by the gesture. It’s unclear if the salary fiasco was a major shaker in Abramson and Sulzberger’s relationship. And there’s no way of knowing if Abramson could have pushed for the increase of salary without legal help; still, bringing attorneys into a dialogue escalates frustration and complicates partnerships.

Being present
Members of Abramson’s staff noted that she was often missing from the newsroom during important moments; the most noted absence during Hurricane Sandy. The days of leaders spending the majority of their time in their offices or on trips are long gone. More and more, they are expected to manage their duties while maintaining a presence at the office.

Transparency is key
Whether it’s through weekly meetings or through some sort of email update, good leaders share their plans and ideas with their teams. Sulzberger claims the main reason for Abramson’s ousting was due to dishonesty: Abramson made a job offer to Jeanine Gibson, the editor of The Guardian’s U.S. operation, without approval. This was discovered during a meal between Dean Baquet and Gibson. Baquet was floored to learn of Gibson’s job offer and that she would have a managing editor role similar to his. Although Abramson claims to have notified Baquet of the hire, one can only speculate that she did not.

There’s no doubt that The New York Times flourished under Abramson. The gender issue seems to be a small note in a complicated dialogue between executives.

Belo Cipriani is an award-winning author, former staffing professional, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.

Belo Cipriani