Update: Here’s a podcast from the Women’s Media Center on the subject of Jill Abramson’s firing featuring Carol Jenkins, Geneva Overholser, Gloria Steinem, and Soraya Chemaly. They talk about some of the material I posted below. As to how we tackle the problem of subtle but real discrimination, we need to take a lesson from Finland and open up a Gender Glasses office in the EEOC that will quantify absolutely everything in a suspect workplace. Everything must be measured from the placement of desks to the time it takes for email to be answered to who reports to who to how many minutes women are allowed to present and how many times they are interrupted compared to a man. Think of it like following sports. Men respect statistics and, frankly, I think it is the only way this problem is going to get flushed out into the open. Otherwise, it’s just our word against theirs. If feminists are really serious about the issue, they need to lobby legislators to formally create a Gender Glasses type of bureau, fund it and publish the statistics. You will know who your friends are when they are asked to co-sign the legislation and move it through the committees.
I promise this will be the last time I write about this thing because it’s speculation anyway. But there’s a lot going on here and, in the end, this is primarily a story about how gender stereotypes were used to serve Baquet. I realize that he’s a likable guy but in the end, Baquet was the primary beneficiary of Abramson’s firing. I think we have to acknowledge that he had a significant role in it.
The story is complicated by a family dynasty, recent history, embarrassment, loyalty, economics and a fundamental misunderstanding about how modern women (and some modern men) think. So, this post will be in pieces parts with the hope that it will all make sense in the end. Some of these pieces come from personal experience that I have witnessed or was encouraged to participate in. The pharma field has given me a wealth of material to write several satires.
Let’s start with the most obvious factor plucked from another post I read this morning about positions traditionally held by men being replaced by female appointees and the irrational resentment that engenders.
“There aren’t any WOMEN here today, are there?”
1.) The male affirmative action program. I ran into this one early in my career when the lab I worked for hired a woman to run a medicinal chemistry group. As far as I could see, she was the only woman running a group of that size in the company. There were other female chemists who had a few assistants and were running project teams but this one new hire, let’s call her D, was going to have a substantial group of PhD chemists running their own projects working for her. It was unprecedented. On the projects I worked on with D, I found her to be very intelligent, incisive, authoritative and, this one is important, calm. There was no drama. She was, and still is, a natural leader.
Needless to say, to this day, the chemists at that lab (who were all laid off en masse by Pfizer in 2009, but that’s another story) complained bitterly about why D was hired. It wasn’t just that she was a token, it was that there were so many other more qualified men that could have been hired in her stead. I had lunch with a bunch of these guys a couple of years ago. They are all pretty decent people, even if they are mentally disabled by their Y chromosomes. When the subject of D was brought up, I laughed at them. They were still convinced that there were better qualified men that could have been hired. I pointed out that before D started, all of the group leaders were men and several, and I named names, were leaders that no one could stand. They were irrational or untalented or autocratic or weird. No one wanted to work for them. But D comes along and instead of saying, hey, she makes JB look like a fricking nut case, why don’t we replace HIM, we’re getting all upset that she’s not some dude we know. I gave them case after case of lousy male group leaders and they all agreed that no one wanted to work for them. Working for D, on the other hand, was a pleasure because it was so damned rational. So, what was the problem, guys? Why is the answer always the affirmative action plan for men? That shut them up and gave them something to think about for awhile.
Sometimes, you need to point out what a warped perspective men have about how the world works. In some respects, their lives are as disadvantaged as a person who grew up in the ghetto. It’s all they know. They’re so used to lousy leadership from half of the men they work for that they fail to see what the real problem is when a woman steps in to a leadership position.
This has been brought up before but the news media represents women’s points of view very poorly. The ratio of men to women on the Op/Ed pages of the NYTimes is something like 10-2. Just look at the Supreme Court to see how having even 3 out of 9 people judging while female has had damn little impact on the law of the land. It only takes one Justice Kennedy or Anonin Scalia in love with his own self and sense of power to hold back modernity in this country. But for some reason, all I ever read about is consternation over why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still serving, a question that never came up when John Paul Stevens was serving well into his 90th year. So, it’s no wonder that our perceptions of women in leadership roles are so twisted. It’s like the privileged group just now noticed that there are women in the crowd.
2.) The layoffs are coming! The layoffs are coming! Anyone working in the last 30 years knows what it’s like to be on the verge of a layoff. The MBA crowd starts sending out fatwas about money and getting lunch served during 4 hour meetings is suddenly not happening anymore and cuts start really biting into how things are done. When this starts happening to a group of professionals who are heavily mortgaged and have kids to raise and college to pay for, alliances start to get formed very quickly. It becomes necessary to find the politically well connected and become their best friend. You like what they like and hate who they hate.
When the layoff rumors started at my last lab about 2 years before the ax fell, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues who told me a story about his family dynamics. He said that he had two brothers and in order to get what he wanted, he always sided with the stronger brother at the time. The brother on top would periodically change and he switched his loyalties accordingly. This conversation was in reference to why he was siding with the guy who eventually turned out to be our boss just before the layoff decisions were made and not with the woman who was my boss. He was offering me a choice. Switch and help drive the knife in or suffer the consequences. I opted for loyalty. I liked my boss and was learning a lot from her. She was displaced a few months later and got a new job, and almost all of her former group members were laid off pretty quickly. I jumped to another group and hung on.
I bring this up because I’ve heard a lot of stuff about how even some of the women in the newsroom complained about Abramson. This is at a time when the CEO of the Times had been making his presence more widely known. When it comes time to satisfy the shareholders, it’s important that you have made the correct alliance. It is pretty clear from the posts I have read about Baquet that Sulzberger liked him and had regretted not appointing him instead of Abramson. So, if the Times staff was in the unenviable position of picking a brother to side with in order to save jobs, Baquet was the one to go to. In such a situation, it is appropriate and understandable to play up his good characteristics in order to justify why Abramson was stabbed in the back. It happens all of the time. I didn’t say it was nice, or fair, or loyal. It’s just human. It’s not a reflection on either Baquet’s or Abramson’s leadership qualities. Pinch liked Baquet and didn’t like Abramson and that’s all you needed to know in order to save your own skin.
3.) Ovaries of Steel. In this case, I am not referring to Abramson, although that plays into it as well. No, I’m referring to the person who Abramson was trying to bring in, Janine Gibson, newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Guardian. Frontline recently ran a two part series on the NSA scandal that everyone should watch for a wide variety of reasons. What Janine Gibson did was both shrewd and incredibly ballsy and she learned what NOT to do by watching what the Times did with previous national intelligence stories.
So, here’s a quick summary. In 2004, James Risen of the NYTimes wrote a story about the Bush administration’s possible violations of the constitution through a massive surveillance of American citizens. It turns out that Risen only knew a tiny fraction of what was going on and Edward Snowden would spell it all out 9 years later. Risen presented Bill Keller, executive editor at the time with his story and Keller and Sulzberger contacted the White House. The White House, deep in reelection politics, knew it had a problem on its hands so it invited Keller and Sulzberger to a meeting. It then put pressure on the Times to sit on the story for a year. The Frontline documentary makes it sound like the White House either threatened the Times or laid a guilt trip on it about “letting the terrorists win”. Well, you remember the crap that the Bushies were always dumping on its critics. Same thing.
Fast forward to 2013. Janine Gibson sends her representatives to Hong Kong to vet Edward Snowden. They check him out and say he’s legit and the story is huge. At that point, she also calls the White House- and gives them four hours to respond before she goes to print. She refuses a meeting. Gibson knew that if she met with the White House and they stalled for time or found a way to silence her source, the story would vanish into the ether so she gave them very little time to engage in defensive tactics. Now, I think Edward Snowden is a hero and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras were inspiring but when it comes right down to it, none of revelations might have happened if Janine Gibson hadn’t had the courage and intelligence to pre-empt the White House and NSA’s stalling tactics.
4.) Putting it all together. So, here’s my best guess as to how Abramson’s firing went down. First, we have Baquet indulging in male affirmative action behavior. Why shouldn’t he be executive editor? Also, Abramson’s bringing in this Gibson girl to be his equal? What?
(I’m going to guess this is when Abramson discovered that she had been underpaid at certain points during her career at the NYTimes. She probably had to find out what salary, benefits and level she could offer Gibson and in the process, uncovered a pattern of pay discrimination that dated back to the time when she was a deputy managing editor. Just a guess but the timing seems right.)
Then there is the sense of unease and impending cutbacks. Baquet makes a lot of friends. Sulzberger likes him. Alliances are formed around Baquet.
Then there is the possible embarrassment to the Times if Gibson comes in. First, it highlights Keller’s and Sulzberger’s toadying to the White House and, secondly, Janine Gibson looks like a loose cannon, something Baquet was likely to highlight during the amuse-bouche. Abramson is making a rash decision to bring in someone who may get the NYTimes into another Risen situation with all of the potential legal headaches and expenses that would entail. Did Pinch really want another embarrassing situation on his hands?? Come to think of it, it’s kind of flattering to be on the president’s good side, isn’t it? And besides, Pinch was one of the forces behind trying to get Caroline Kennedy to take Hillary Clinton’s senate seat. No doubt, Sulzberger considers himself to be one of the best people. It just wouldn’t look good to hire this upstart boat rocker. Did Abramson really think this over before she went over both of their heads to hire Gibson?
5.) The Pilhofer Pilfer. Women who came of age during the 70’s and 80’s, before The Backlash, grew up believing that there were no boundaries to their ambition. Oh, sure, we had professors who spent inordinate amounts of time fluffing some pissy little male students instead of us but we could rise above that. Then we went to work and accomplished and moved into leadership positions and took some risks. To us, I mean to the females in this cohort, there is a lot of admiration and respect for each other’s talents and life work. We see ourselves as persons who are women with accomplishments. However, to the rest of the world, especially to men who for some reason aren’t interested in hearing about the Abramson firing because it is booooorrrrrring to them, a person with Hillary Clinton’s or Jill Abramson’s credentials is still like a dog playing a piano. They are one offs.
I have also read that women get their first crack at high level leadership when an organization is in trouble. There are a couple theories as to why this is. One is that the organizations have run out of other options. Another is that women are seen as smoothing the waters when there is internal turmoil, although this is really a cultural stereotype. Women are human beings and can be tough as well if they are given permission to do so. Look at what happened in Iceland during the financial crisis of 2008. Johanna Sigurdardottir was put in charge when the country faced down the IMF and the world’s biggest banks. It initially had a severe recession but has recovered better than Ireland, Spain or Greece. The risk to women is high in these situations. If she can’t avert the impending disaster, her leadership is blamed and taints the careers of other women of her stature.
Abramson was put in a tricky position when she took over from Keller in 2011. The Times is going through a harsh transition due to the changing nature of the media. From all accounts, she was doing very well. She was instrumental in putting up the paywall to the news, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than putting a paywall around the Op/Ed pages. Maybe it wouldn’t have been enough to save her when the shareholders started demanding more for dinner. Even superhuman accomplishments wouldn’t have been sufficient in that scenario. And her reputedly “brusque” behavior was not unusual for executive editors of major papers. I think the gender related complaints were just convenient excuses that Baquet and his allies used to get her out of the way.
But Sulzberger and Baquet are still working with old male brains because Janine Gibson *is* a force to be reckoned with and the fact that she poached one of the NYTimes’ up and coming digital content specialists in the aftermath of Abramson’s firing tells us quite a bit. It tells us that there are some men who see an advantage to working for strong, courageous women, and that’s a very good thing for the rest of us.
And a very bad thing for the NYTimes.
Filed under: General | Tagged: Dean Baquet, Edward Snowden, Finland, gender, Gender Glasses, Glenn Greenwald, Iceland, Janine Gibson, laura poitras, layoffs, loyalty, male affirmative action program, Pinch sulzberger, shareholder value, statistics, women's media center | 12 Comments »