Friday, May 16, 2014

What I Learned From The Firing of Jill Abramson

Remember how in my previous post about this I pointed out that the abrupt and brusque and pushy firing of the first female executive editor at the New York Times less than three years into her tenure was noteworthy because of the abruptness of the firing (which even clearly bad past executive editors didn't have to suffer) and because it was less than three years into the tenure of the first female executive editor at the Times?

And because the Times (or Arthur Sulzberger) seemed to have been utterly oblivious of the chance that this might provoke a few comments from the vast hairy-armpits-feminazi-army?  No Plan B, as far as I can tell, with the possible exception that Abramson was replaced by the first man of color to lead the Times (a good journalist, as far as I can tell,  who deserves a better beginning for his reign).

Here's the hilarious thing:  It seems that Arthur Sulzberger now has a brand new Twitter account, in which he reassures us all that none of this debacle had anything to do with sexism or gender problems:

If the account is real, this might be the Plan B!

The first lesson learned:  Lots of people don't take all that wimminz stuff that seriously. I'm not saying that this proves Sulzberger is a sexist, not at all.  What I'm saying is that he most likely never bothered thinking of that aspect of the story.

Or to put it in different terms:  Sulzberger might have managed a slower and more honorable firing had he thought this through.  It could be that Abramson wouldn't agree to anything of the sort, but in that case you need your Plan B all ready in your hot little fingers.

The second lesson learned (in three parts) concerns new data on the actual salary discrepancies at the Times.  I cannot tell if the data is correct, sadly, but here we go:

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 the 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. (Murphy would say only that Abramson’s compensation was “broadly comparable” to that of Taubman and Geddes.)
Murphy cautioned that one shouldn’t look at salary but, rather, at total compensation, which includes, she said, any bonuses, stock grants, and other long-term incentives. This distinction appears to be the basis of Sulzberger’s comment that Abramson was not earning “significantly less.” But it is hard to know how to parse this without more numbers from the Times.

What's the lesson here?  There are three, in fact.  The first is a reminder that people can, in principle, be paid less for the very same job than someone else if nobody knows what the pay levels are.  I've personally known a few cases where the information is revealed, accidentally, and shows tremendous and unjustified pay differences.

This is important to remember when you get those arguments on the net about how laws make paying less for the same job illegal.  If you have no idea you are being paid less, how would you take the case to court?

Should you wish to do so.  The second reminder here is that trying to get your salary raised on such grounds probably doesn't work if you also still want to remain employed in that same firm:

Abramson’s attempt to raise the salary issue at a time when tempers were already frayed seemed wrongheaded to Sulzberger and Thompson, both on its merits and in terms of her approach. Bringing in a lawyer, in particular, seems to have struck them as especially combative. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that “this incident was a contributing factor” to the firing of Abramson, because “it was part of a pattern.”

The take-home message in all that seems to be that a very powerful woman cannot get away by "Leaning In Like The Boyz Do."  Indeed, that very Leaning-in is judged as part of her whole problematic package.

It can be the case that none of the firing of Abramson had anything to do with her gender, at least if we decide not to dwell into those deep layers where the same move by a man and a woman is judged differently because they are a man and a woman.  But even so these events tell us something about the advisability of Leaning In.  It can be tricky to do that and not to topple over, and the reasons don't have to be your fault.  Though of course they may be, because telling discrimination apart from one's personal failings can be complicated as Ann Friedman reminds us here.

The third reminder about salaries is the response I've seen in a few places which boils down to the argument that it doesn't matter if the very highly paid workers are not getting paid the same by gender (or race, I guess), because even the lower paycheck is plenty to live on.  

I get that paying less to women  (or to men who belong to minorities) who are earning minimal wages to begin with is much worse.  But it's dangerous to assume that the patterns we observe among the one percent workers wouldn't be reflected on lower levels at the workplace, and it's dangerous to ignore the symbolic value of what happens on the highest rungs of the societal ladders:  Some people don't deserve as much money as other people on the same rung.  It's also dangerous to ignore what we learn about the power of negotiating from this particular case, especially because Jill Abramson should certainly qualify as one of those women whom Leaning In would help.

Besides, if we use that argument at all, how are we going to justify the even higher salaries of the men or white workers on the top rungs?  Or do they just get away with earning more, even if it's not required on the basis of objective factors?

The third, and final lesson I have learned (or, rather, been reminded of) is the one Friedman writes about:

From the outside, depending on your point of view, Abramson’s firing was either sexist retribution or a gender-blind decision to ax an ineffective boss. But from the inside, incidents like this are never so clear. Women never know whether they’re being met with a hostile reaction because of their performance — something that they can address and change — or because of both male and female colleagues’ internalized notions of how women should behave. I’ve asked these questions about my own career: Am I struggling because I’m not playing the game well enough, or because the game is rigged against me? Like Abramson, I’ve been a top-level editor who’s had trouble getting along with male bosses — so much so that a friend once offered to purchase acting classes for me so I’d be better equipped to “play nice.” If you’d asked me then, I would have said that learning how to get people on board with your ideas is an art, one that requires work to master no matter what your gender. I also would have told you that I was the only woman on a senior leadership team of more than ten people. 

The most intractable problem about any kind of discrimination is that it applies to an individual (usually in a state of relative isolation from his or her "group"), but derives from that individual's group membership.

Because no individual ever is perfect, almost any firing or demotion or not-being-hired can be justified by apparently objective criteria, even when the decision was based on some type of discrimination.   And this doesn't take into account that a personality conflict, say, might not be about two individuals not getting along but about one individual not getting along with people belonging to a particular demographic group.

What all that means is that the individual worker is usually unsure about what's going on.  Do I really talk too quietly/little/much at the meetings?  Am I imagining that the set of rules I was given for promotion suddenly are different when I completed all the previously required steps?  Is it really just the case that Don is a nasty guy who is nasty to everyone but happens to pinch my butt just because?

It can be a hallucinatory experience, that inner questioning, the attempts to fix whatever can be fixed, the odd shifts which do seem to come from outside (but then perhaps they come from outside to everybody?)

And this is why evidence is so important, why I tried to look at earlier firings at the New York Times and the way male journalists were treated or criticized.  Even that isn't enough, because Abramson is just one single individual.  If similar patterns applied to men and women more widely, we'd be on firmer ground.

Not everything is discrimination in the labor markets, not all workers are good workers, and that's what makes telling the different reasons for how Abramson was treated so difficult.  It helps to look at her Pulitzer prizes or how the newspaper has been doing under her tenure and it helps reading about the specific accusations others have aimed at her.  But ultimately the only fool-proof way of judging the impact of gender in this case would be if we could have all the same history but with Jack Abramson, Jill's identical-except-for-gender twin.

In the absence of that, getting lots of evidence and preferably evidence about many individuals at the same time is the best way of answering these types of questions.  That, and the kind of consciousness raising feminists in the US practiced in the early 1970s and which is now carried out by many different demographic groups on the net.  Once you learn that others have had exactly the same experiences (or not had them), the hallucinatory atmosphere becomes more breathable.