Home > journalism, statistics > Was Jill Abramson’s firing a woman thing?

Was Jill Abramson’s firing a woman thing?

May 15, 2014

Need to be both nerdy and outraged today.

I’ve noticed something. When something shitty happens to me, and I’m complaining to a group of friends about it, I sometimes say something like “that only happened to me because I’m a woman.”

Now, first of all, I want to be clear, I’m no victim. I don’t let sexism get me down. In fact when I say something like that it usually is a coping mechanism to separate that person’s actions from my own actions, and to help me figure out what to do next. Usually I let it slide off of me and continue on my merry way.

But here’s where it’s weird. If I’m with a bunch of women friends, their immediate reaction is always the same: “hell yes, that bitch/ bastard is just a sexist fuck.” But if I’m with a bunch of man friend of mine, the reaction is very likely to be different: “oh, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume it was sexist. That guy/ girl is just an asshole.”

What it comes down to is priors. My prior is that there is sexism in the world, and it happens all the fucking time, especially to women with perceived power (or to women with no power whatsoever), and so when someone treats me or someone else badly, I do assume we should look into the sexism angle. It’s a natural choice, and Occam’s razor suggests it is involved.

So when Jill Abramson got fired, a bunch of the world’s women were like, those fuckers fired her because she is a powerful, take-no-bullshit woman, and if she’d been a man she would have been expected to act like a dick, but because she’s a woman they couldn’t handle it.

And a bunch of the world’s men were like, wow, I wonder what happened?

So, yes, now I have a prior on people’s priors on sexism, and I think men’s and women’s sexism priors are totally different. I can even explain it.

Men are men, so they don’t experience sexism. So they don’t update their priors like women do. Plus, because there is rarely a moment when an event or reaction is officially deemed “sexist,” men even categorize events differently than women (as discussed above), so even when they do update their prior, it is differently updated, partly because their prior is that nothing is sexist unless proven to be, since it’s so freaking unlikely, according to their prior.

Ezra Klein isn’t speculating, for example, but Emily Bell is, and I’m with her. That just strengthened my priors about other people’s priors.

Categories: journalism, statistics
  1. Josh
    May 15, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I agree and I think it is more general. People with different political beliefs or world views create attributions for what happens that accord with their own priors and then feel they have confirmation. So, people’s “models” of the world don’t converge but just get more confirmed in their differences.

    I think this is big problem in many areas. I don’t know how to address it but understanding the problem is a step.


  2. revuluri
    May 15, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I found Shankar Vedantam’s chapter “The Invisible Current” in his book “The Hidden Brain” very illuminating on this topic. The examples of male-to-female and female-to-male transgendered people working in the same field (academic biology) were particularly striking. I think the phenomenon you describe also applies in a couple other cases I can think of – the differing opinions of white and non-white Americans about the prevalence of racism (as has been widely written about), and the differing opinions of mathematicians and those who ultimately decided not to be mathematicians about pedagogy and the issues with the prevailing mathematics educational system (which, as far as I know, has not).


  3. Gordon
    May 15, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Since I’m male, I’m obviously not going to see sexism anywhere, but the Times is reporting that it happened because there was, “serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who was concerned about complaints from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial. She had also had clashes with Mr. Baquet.

    In recent weeks, these people said, Mr. Baquet had become angered over a decision by Ms. Abramson to make a job offer to a senior editor from The Guardian, Janine Gibson, and install her alongside him in a co-managing editor position without consulting him. It escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger….

    …But as a leader of the newsroom, she was accused by some of divisiveness and criticized for several of her personnel choices, in particular the appointment of several major department heads who did not last long in their jobs.”

    Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor suggest that she was let go because she wasn’t a great manager? And doesn’t one frequently read exactly this kind of story about (say) pro-sports coaches – guys with great records who don’t mesh with a room full of people that they’re supposed to be managing, and are fired as a result?

    You can probably construct an argument about her not being respected by the news room because of her chromosomes, and that had she been a man, those reporters (who in the two photos in the Times story, appear to be roughly equally split between men and women) would have respected her hard-headedness… but that wouldn’t meet Occam’s standard, I don’t think.


    • May 15, 2014 at 10:55 am

      In terms of why she was let go and why they talked about her management skills instead of her successes, read Emily Bell’s piece, she answers that question better than I could.

      But you’ve brought up another important topic in your comment, namely the question of when is Occam’s razor the tool to use. I’ll write another post about this probably, but it’s clear that when one uses Occam’s razor says as much about their priors as anything else. It is basically saying, the obvious, least complicated solution is the one to favor, but what you define as “obvious” is defined in turn by your priors. It’s almost tautological in some sense. Maybe we should stop talking about Occam’s razor and just talk about priors.


    • cat
      May 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

      “Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor suggest that she was let go because she wasn’t a great manager?”

      So who do you attribute’s the NYT success over her tenure to? Her subordinates who succeeded despite her poor management?

      Why is it when a manager clashes with a subordinate the manager has to modify their behavior and the subordinate can continue their own behavior unchecked? And the ‘clashes’ you allude the euphemistically includes an encounter where Mr. Baquet punched a wall. Every where I’ve worked in the last decade that gets you escorted out of the building and terminated instantly.

      I can understand Mr. Baquet being upset a new hire was brought in at his level as it looks like his manager was trying to transition out a bad employee gracefully given how poorly he fit with his manager.


      • Gordon
        May 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm

        To clarify: I don’t have a view on why NYT succeeded under her leadership, or even if it did – it underperformed Gannett and McClatchy for basically the whole of her tenure, although it did better than some other media properties. Nor did I say that managers should always modify their behavior to accommodate their staff – there’s obviously a tension between flexibility and leadership in many situations. Finally, I didn’t allude, euphemistically or otherwise, to ‘clashes’: that was the Times’ description.

        What I did say was that there’s a body of opinion that holds she was fired for reasons related to her managerial style. I also said that it’s easy to find plenty of other managers, some of them male, who have also been fired because of their managerial style, despite having good records. Saying that she was fired for sexist reasons therefore doesn’t seem like the simplest explanation that fits the facts of the story, which is the point of Occam’s Razor. Of course, you can posit a contra-factual in which exactly the same personality traits and executive decisions that were intolerable in her would have been excused (celebrated?) had she been a man… it’s just not obviously the simplest logic chain, and it relies entirely on an unprovable assumption set.


        • cat
          May 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm

          I reread what you wrote and you did quote from the NYT article several paragraphs rather then a phrase/sentence I assumed given the way it was displayed. Which can be attributed to the software.

          But you still are avoiding the point, The assumption is she was fired due to being a bad manager. The only proof she was a bad manager is behavior exhibited by both good and bad managers. Remember, she is being replaced by a guy who punched a wall at work.

          None of the other aspects of how she performed her role have been discussed.


        • sheenyglass
          May 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm

          I’d also just point out that her firing could have been both 1) justified and 2) sexist if, for example, she had flaws as a manager that would have been tolerated if she were a man. As it has been noted in multiple articles on the subject, Howell Raines was notoriously autocratic and yet given a more ceremonious departure than Abramson despite leaving because of Jayson Blair. In other words, sexism in firing decisions can also manifest itself as men who should be fired retaining their jobs.


        • sheenyglass
          May 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm

          Ouch reading fail by me. Completely missed that my point was addressed. My bad. However, I don’t see it as relying any more on unproven assumptions than your “simplest explanation”. You either assume that the firing was not influenced by sexist or it was influenced by sexism. The difference is which assumption you think bears the burden of proof. I’m inclined to put the burden of proof on the person firing the woman for being pushy, particularly when the firing deviates from past trends at that organization.

          I have had women coworkers tell me that they had been criticized for being “pushy” when I found them to be totally reasonable (and in fact one had been called pushy by one of the pushiest dudes I’ve ever met). Meanwhile, I have never heard of a dude being criticized for being pushy when they have exhibited levels of insistence comparable to those of those women.


  4. cat
    May 15, 2014 at 11:04 am

    The NYT priors include lots of sex discrimination and is still controlled by the same family that aren’t absentee owners. To claim sexism wasn’t a factor is to be incredibly naive.

    Ezra Klein’s piece is a classic conventional wisdom centrist don’t bite the hand that feeds you PoS you have to admire its crafting while its content crushes your soul.


  5. bgg
    May 15, 2014 at 11:04 am

    The slurs against Abramson’s personality (those brought against any powerful woman) have been in circulation for a long time. More disturbingly, Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired.html) suggests that 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.” According to an unnamed source Auletta quotes, ‘she had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.’

    Very disturbing news, bringing to mind the Times’s well-known history of institutional sexism.


    • May 15, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      bgg, the irony of a liberal newspaper that reports heavily on the pay gap, found to be not practicing what it preaches is not lost on anyone.Hypocrisy, I spoke the word!


  6. Ruth C White
    May 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

    And replacing her with a black man is a conveniently great political move. Wonder what his pay packet is like?


  7. klhoughton
    May 15, 2014 at 11:36 am

    What cat Said. Anyone looking at the adjectives being used by those =defending= the decision knows better than Ezra.


  8. Josh
    May 15, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Jon Stewart did a great job skewering political sexism on this show (sorry about the ads).

    Maybe someday there will be a woman Comedy Central host to ask these questions but I guess progress is slow..


    • May 15, 2014 at 11:59 am

      This is great! And it’s just like Geithner’s book, especially when he talks about Sheila Bair.


  9. David Baer
    May 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Steve Jobs was reportedly hard to get along with as well, but the people working with him put up with it because of his dedication to a quality product. It seems to me that reporting at NY Times was outstanding under Abramson’s leadership including reporting on China’s corrupt leadership when Bloomberg backed down, the reporting on China hacking (and NYTimes being hacked by China), Rosenthal’s coverage of high costs in medicine and so on….
    Her firing may have less to do with being a woman and more to do with the people who work in journalism who (unlike in tech) are unwilling to put up with a personality who might hurt their feelings for better product.
    I think it is wrong to focus on her being a woman instead of just focusing on a strong personality that believed in outstanding quality that had a somewhat mercurial personality. Working with creative types (both management and staff) means often dealing with mercurial personalities.

    It is NYTimes readership’s loss. I hope Jeff Bezos hires her to head his new newspaper, The Washington Post and gives her some budget to enable her to surpass the NY Times.


    • David Baer
      May 15, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      Here is a story about Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple while Jobs was still CEO. It is hard to believe a journalist would have put up with his attitude:

      IMHO, the owners of the NYTimes don’t have the same dedication to quality possessed by Jobs/Cook and the employees seem unwilling to put up with hurt feelings.

      One day back then, he [Tim Cook] convened a meeting with his team, and the discussion turned to a particular problem in Asia.

      “This is really bad,” Cook told the group. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes into that meeting Cook looked at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and abruptly asked, without a trace of emotion, “Why are you still here?”

      Khan, who remains one of Cook’s top lieutenants to this day, immediately stood up, drove to San Francisco International Airport, and, without a change of clothes, booked a flight to China with no return date, according to people familiar with the episode. The story is vintage Cook: demanding and unemotional.


  10. May 15, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    This whole rant reminds me of my own upset in a different arena… dealing with businesses/corporations… and forever assuming dishonesty/deception on their part (based on a lot of “priors” so-to-speak). Not sure if those fears are overdone, or true enough to be justifiable. Example: My internet supplier, who to protect their identity, I’ll simply call Schlime-Weener, offered me a package deal: I can continue to pay $48/mo., as I do now, for cable internet ONLY, OR, I can have that same internet, plus wi-fi, plus a landline phone, plus basic TV service, all for $44/mo. (for a full year). Of course THAT makes NO SENSE at all! — plus I’ve talked to many people who have taken package deals from Schlime-Weener at a quoted price, only to then be billed MUCH MORE and require 6-12 aggravating months to clear up the matter, and get money returned.
    So I told the fellow I didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken, and since I didn’t trust his company, couldn’t take the offer. But going through life assuming the worst of every sales/corporate offer/statement ain’t fun… I guess I’m wondering if this gut-distrust of businesses at this point is just a “liberal thing,” or is it in fact a necessary, smart, defensive approach?


    • May 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      While this “rant” is on a “liberal” topic, you can see similar behavior of self-confirmation of beliefs every day from people from all political beliefs. If you don’t like Obamacare, everything bad that happens in health care was caused by it. If you do like it, everything good was.

      Neither side is right but neither side question its own assumptions — just gets more certain they are right.


      • May 15, 2014 at 12:52 pm

        Maybe. But in this case there’s plenty of empirical evidence that sexism still exists and is widespread.


        • josh
          May 15, 2014 at 7:00 pm

          I didn’t mean to suggest it isn’t.


  11. May 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    When it happened to Carli Fiorina at H-P (and other women elsewhere), I figured it was corporate sexism, but when it happens at the liberal NY Times? “Bossy.” “pay gap” Of course sexism still exists, but in this case it is the Liberals’ War on Women. Talk is cheap; pay packages are expensive.


  12. quasihumanist
    May 15, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    It’s probably not true that 100% of the reason she was fired was because she was a woman. It’s probably not true either that 0% of the reason she was fired was because she was a woman.

    So I think one of the reasons for differing responses is also that different people interpret the question ‘Was she fired for being a woman?’ different ways. You’re obviously going to answer the question differently if you interpret it as ‘Was the only reason she was fired that she was a woman?’ or if you interpret it as ‘Did being a woman contribute in any way to her firing?’ Even if you dismiss these extreme interpretations, there is still a lot of room in the middle for differences in interpreting the question.


  13. Jim Birch
    May 15, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    People react in line with their priors but they also react in ways that are less threatening. It’s emotionally easy for a woman to describe anything as sexist – ie against women – so they externalize the fault from their “group” and by association from themselves. Simple. For men, the sexism explanation would find them taking a little emotional hit by association, so they would look for alternative explanations of an event. These are hard-to-avoid automaticity; we are wired to associate, and to avoid too much uncomfortable reality.

    Both strategies are likely to be wrong when they are automatic. In fact, if you are relying on news reports and various self-justificational public statement by the actors you are unlikely get reliably close to the truth. Once positions are taken they “storify” a life of their own. Adjustments require a loss of face. The psychological evidence is pretty clear on this, memory is poor, bias changes memories, and, remembering changes memories.

    I’m just talking generally, I don’t know who these people are. It’s another countries local news. I would probably want a lot more information to make a judgement on what’s going on in this particular case.


  14. dbk
    May 16, 2014 at 3:40 am

    It’s not obvious to me that Abramson’s personality/comportment as a super-high-powered journalist and boss of journalists is so different than that of males who hold comparable roles. There’s evidence that when women display this type of personality, they’re deemed agressive and disagreeable; when men display it they’re deemed assertive and dedicated. She didn’t apparently get on well with the owner(s), but there are two sides to this: the owner(s) may have been interfering with issues of editorial policy (evidence suggests they were/are).

    On the other hand, while the exact numbers have not been revealed, it looks like she was consistently paid around 80-85 cents on the dollar of what her male predecessors had earned, both in the two positions she held in NYC for the Times, and in DC as Bureau Chief. Looks like there’s a pattern there. The Times’ justification for her earning less than Bill Keller – that she’d been at the organization fewer years – would have been valid if she’d been a new, outside hire, but she’d already been with the organization 14 years. During her 17 years with the NYT, it appears that in every job she held, she was paid less than the male who preceded her.


  15. May 16, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Courtesy of Politico:

    By Ben White

    THE ABRAMSON PARAGRAPH THE SHOOK THE WORLD – The Jill Abramson firing story blew up even further last night following this piece of reporting from The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta: “Let’s look at some numbers I’ve been given: As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $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.

    “She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of a male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her predecessor in that position, Phil Taubman.” http://nyr.kr/1gKmTNZ

    WHY THIS MATTERS – Unless the NYT releases further data showing how other elements of comp made Abramson’s pay “broadly comparable” to her male counterparts – as the paper’s spokeswoman has insisted – it seems pretty clear it wasn’t. In fact it wasn’t even close. And that’s a pretty huge embarrassment to a left-leaning newspaper that crusades for equal pay for and other economic justice issues in its news and editorial pages.


  16. Reede Stockton
    May 16, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    I’m generally willing to accept your explanation, including the discussion about priors, but I’m male and think I do a decent job of recognizing both sexism and racism. There are obviously some males that DO recognize sexism and consider it quickly as a fundamental reason women don’t get cut the same slack. I’m curious. What’s your explanation for folks whose priors don’t match up with the personal self-interested experience?


    • May 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      That you have a prior that other people’s priors should influence yours.


  17. May 17, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    FIRST PERSON – Susan B. Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine, “Editing While Female: Field notes from one of journalism’s most dangerous jobs”: ” I have long known and admired [Jill] Abramson, who helped hire my husband [Peter Baker] at the Times, and had watched with dismay over the last year as any legitimate questions about her tenure were subordinated to tiresome, trite and utterly sexist debates over her ‘temperament’ … We like to pretend it’s different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter that glass ceiling into thousands of pieces. But it’s not true. There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it’s a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers …”

    “[A]s welcome as this new empowerment narrative is and as supportive as the institution I’ve landed at is, I can’t help but see it as a jarring contrast with the reality of what it actually means to be editing while female. Or writing for that matter. You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a woman willing to suit up for life in this public arena. … Is all this coverage of the New York Times and how it treated its first woman editor going to convince more young women to enter the journalism business? You can bet not.” http://goo.gl/zX7KhS


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