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Social Listening: Jill Abramson and the "Bossy" Thing

Working women have always questioned the veracity of meritocracy. Ostensibly, a given?  Alas, not yet, not even in the 21st century. The obtuse firing last week by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson—the first woman to lead the Times in its 162-year history—who, with 8 Pulitzers to her credit, a stellar fiduciary and fiscal management record at the Times and a record of bringing gender parity and diversity to the newsroom, as well as innovation—is proof positive we have a long way to go.  

During her short two and a half years leading the Times, Abramson not only promoted women to top editorial positions, but she also sought diversity—and took action to achieve it.  Abramson is also credited with editorial innovation at the Times, resulting in profitability in an era of print newspaper attrition or demise.  So it is no surprise that Abramson has a favorable social media sentiment is weighing almost 70/30 in favor of Abramson, according to our NetBase analysis.



A dedicated, 17-year veteran at the Times, known for being a tough manager, Abramson’s firing has set off a media and social maelstrom, fraught with questions: Was she fired for questioning her salary? Do young tenacious, outspoken, professional women entering the workplace today face the same prospect? Should women now question the potential risk of buying into Facebook COO and activist Sheryl Steinberg’s mantra “Lean In,” at the risk of sabotaging their career prospects?  Has Sulzberger fired another salvo over the #waronwomen bow?   What are new female college grads to do? Is there a dual standard for female and male managers?  Is “bossy” the new euphemism for “she’s not C-suite material?”

There is a weighty perception in the social dialogue that equal pay was an issue in her firing—Sulzberger Jr. certainly gave no other credible reason, citing only nebulous newsroom complaints and conflicts (Hello! It’s a newsroom—with a big testosterone legacy).  In fact, Sulzberger fired her without due cause, it appears. Contradicting Sulzberger’s claim, as Ken Auletta reveals in his New Yorker blog, Abramson’s pay and pension benefits were lower than her predecessor, Bill Keller’s, whom she replaced as both managing editor and executive director—in both positions.  Facts which Abramson had discretely investigated and with which she confronted her boss.

“Pushy,” also leveraged against Abramson by some of her critics, is a gender culturalization—whether, like Sulzburger, you deny gender was an issue in her firing, and instead hide behind the “management style” euphemism.  While the media called her brusque and bitchy, to young women at the NYT, Jill Abramson represented hope for young women aspiring to leadership at the paper, as Amanda Hess of Slate reports in her interview with some female staffers. This post, too, is an expression, if not a warrior call, to persevere and prevail:  Jill Abramson is a lesson to us all: equality doesn't exist in journalism. Here's to women who keep "pushing" for better.

As the NetBase emotions cloud below shows, the post by Abramson’s daughter Cornelia Griggs on Instagram, Mom’s badass new hobby, has a sympathetic following


Tenacious, creative, credible, principled female leaders are subject to a double standard, astutely discussed in New York Magazine in Ann Friedman’s article Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired

Abramson’s firing has triggered a palpable fear sensed in social media among women about sexism in the workplace.  Predictably, equality, equal pay and gender parity are hot trending issues in our NetBase social tracker. Notably, however, the narrative has gone beyond both Sulzberger’s crass dismissal of Abramson and equal pay, to reawaken the underbelly of the broader dual standard discussion and the more subtle agendas at play, still, in the corporate world of the 21st century.

As Abramson stated in her commencement address at Wake Forest University, she’s on the same level as grads—she has no idea what’s next.  But I think she does. To lead by example to empower the next generation of female leaders. Brava, Jill!

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