Stop the Presses

05.16.14

What Happens to Women When Female Leaders Like Jill Abramson Get Fired?

It’s not enough for women to get the top job. The new challenge seems to be keeping it.

While Jill Abramson’s abrupt firing from the New York Times has sparked nearly as much speculation as the JayZ-Solange fight video, one thing is certain: Abramson’s exit is giving new rise to the discussion of the advancement for women in the workplace. If the appointment of women to top positions is supposed to help women below, what happens when women at the top don’t go the distance?

Of Abramson’s unpleasant end, Gloria Feldt, founder of the women’s leadership group Take the Lead, said, “I think it will deter, whether consciously or unconsciously, some women from seeking the top-level position.”

During our interview Feldt touched upon a hot topic—namely, that women tend to grapple with confidence in a way men are less likely to and therefore failure, perceived or real, may impact women differently. This is the subject of a buzzy new book, The Confidence Code, by journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. The book delves into why women across professions, across the world are routinely found in studies to be less confident in their performance, and in the pay they deserve, than their male counterparts. 

The book also addresses a startling reality: Despite women now outnumbering men on college campuses, and single childless women closing the pay gap in major cities, women in major leadership roles are still rare. That’s what has made Abramson’s ouster such a topic of conversation among women. 

“I think a situation like this can definitely deter women from reaching for leadership roles,” said Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software. Working in tech, Parsons is a leader in a field not known for its welcoming attitude toward women. Her frustration about Abramson’s story has as much to do with Abramson’s actual exit as it does with how her exit has been discussed, something that has clearly struck a nerve among women.

“From my perspective, it goes back to the constant reinforcement that women just can’t win, no matter what. You are too meek and you don’t ask for what you need and you’re too soft or you’re a bossy bitch, there's no winning in these situations. Hillary Clinton was seen as a ‘bossy bitch,’ and now she’s under scrutiny for being too old, too weak. When is this going to end?” A number of the women interviewed by The Daily Beast felt strongly that media coverage of Abramson might serve as a deterrent or at least a cautionary tale to women aspiring leaders, more so than Abramson’s actual ouster.

Carol Jenkins, founding president of the Women’s Media Center, which monitors and condemns sexist coverage across all media platforms, predicted that Abramson’s story “will certainly give women pause.” She explained, “The things that were said about her [Abramson]: polarizing, mercurial, condescending, combative. Those are the words used to describe her and that’s the usual language used to describe women who are in charge and are making decisions the way men usually make them, but it tends to rub men and women the wrong way.”

Rachel Sklar, founder of the women’s networking platform The Li.st.  wrote in an email, “Is the gendered narrative around Abramson’s firing chilling? Yes, in the sense that women everywhere can hear the dog-whistle of ‘brusque’ and ‘uncaring’ and know that it’s really about the double-standard women face around likeability and success. But will it keep women of talent and substance and mettle and ambition from gunning it forward? No way. For the women I’ve seen talking about this, publicly and privately, this seems only to have deepened that forward resolve.”

Feldt, a longtime feminist activist, was inspired to found Take the Lead after concluding that women will never achieve full equality until they hold major leadership roles across all major industries, including media.

Feldt’s message to women who may be discouraged by Abramson’s story is simple. “We’re in the midst of an unfinished revolution and if you want your daughters to have a chance you’ve got to keep moving forward.”