The Jill Abramson Controversy: Did Gender Play A Role?

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42-48558023Photo: KENA BETANCUR/Corbis.
When news broke Wednesday that The New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was stepping down, the Internet erupted with speculation about the reasons behind the unexpected shakeup. Some theorized that her notoriously salty disposition was to blame, while others suspected it was the reported ongoing feud between Abramson and the paper's financial arm, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and The New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson.

A new report courtesy of The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, however, suggests that Abramson was unhappy with her pay package, and it was only after she confronted her bosses about the matter that she was terminated. “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,” Auletta writes.

Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy did her best to refute Auletta’s claims, in an email to Politico’s Dylan Byers. "Jill's total compensation as executive editor was not less than Bill Keller’s, so that is just incorrect," she wrote. "Her pension benefit, like all Times employees, is based on her years of service and compensation. The pension benefit was frozen in 2009."

However, when Hunter Walker of Business Insider contacted Murphy, her response was somewhat incongruous with what she told Byers, writing that Abramson's compensation "was not meaningfully less" than Kellar's. One doesn't need to be trained in linguistics to realize that "was not less" and "was not meaningfully less" mean two different things entirely.
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Gawker noticed the glaring inconsistency between the two statements, and asked Murphy to clarify. "There is no discrepancy. Jill’s compensation was directly comparable to Bill’s during their times as executive editor," she wrote. "Not less, not meaningfully less, not considerably less (as reported in the NY’er), directly comparable." When asked if she could provide exact numbers, Murphy wrote, "Obviously, no, we can’t. Directly comparable is pretty clear, in my view.”

If Auletta's initial report does turn out to be true, The Times will have quite the fiasco on their hands. That women make less money than men in corporate America has been a hot-button issue for years, and shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. And, it would be naive to assume that because Abramson was at the top of the totem pole, she'd be immune to such discrimination. No. What's most alarming here is Auletta's claim that when Abramson confronted her superiors about matters of equal compensation, it played into management's long-running belief that she was "pushy."

The heavily gendered word can often be a death knell for women in positions of power, who are expected to be pliable and pleasant. Clearly Abramson's assertive approach to getting what she wanted rubbed Sulzberger Jr. the wrong way, and as a result, her "management" skills were given as the reason she was let go. Remember: The New York Times is one of the most important papers on the planet. It's unlikely that the post of executive editor would have been given to someone who was not intensely vetted beforehand. If Abramson's management skills were subpar, she wouldn't have been given the job in the first place.

What likely happened was that as The New York Times continues to focus on new ways of monetization, in Abramson it wanted an agreeable editor who wouldn't stand in the way of new business-minded initiatives. What it got instead was an assertive, ambitious woman who refused to recede when push came to shove. In other words, what they got was a leader.