Bob Franken


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I confess: I’m a man. So it’s not easy for me to get my mind around the shabby firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson. For starters, I have to give her credit for not accepting some sort of bribe to just fade out of sight with the usual memos where her bosses “wish her well” (as you might know, I think that’s another way of saying, “May she burn in hell”).
The Abramson firing was a study in clumsiness, so much so that it lays bare all the questions about sexism in the workplace, particularly at the executive level. Is there a double standard for female and male bosses? Sure there is. Women are still weighed down by the traditional demands to be passive and rely on gentle persuasion. Us men, at the same time, are celebrated when we are demanding and hard-charging.
So, was Abramson’s toughness a rude shock? Probably so. Unfairly so. I’ve worked in the news business a long time, where the two main characteristics of the best reporters are a strong suspicion of authority and neurotic insecurity. In other words, we are nearly impossible to manage. Jill Abramson wasn’t daunted by that. She was widely described as the intimidator, not the intimidatee.
Was that fatal in the back-stabbing world of fragile egos at The New York Times? It probably didn’t win over some of the guys who would have preferred being stroked by a more collaborative female leader.

In many of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s gazillion explanations of why he booted Abramson, he keeps returning to her management style. He glosses over the fact that under her leadership — less than three years — the paper won eight Pulitzers. That’s a pretty good metric for measuring her success.
Unseemly and unfair as all of this is, it should force us to reflect on the many knots of this dilemma and, more importantly, guide us as we figure out ways to untangle them. As a card-carrying male, I have a limited understanding of the female experience in the workplace. But for starters, I can ponder mine.
I’d like to believe that the sex of my supervisors doesn’t really matter to me. I’m more predisposed to resent bosses male or female. Still, I have been inspired by some imperious men as well as women who forced me to improve my game by insisting that my product measure up to their very tough standards. I’ve also had to answer to incompetents who tried to make up for their shortcomings with bullying and deceit. Again, I’m describing both men and women. I’m an equal-opportunity hater. Obviously, though, as a general rule, a double standard does exist, and all of us need to confront the complexities of them in the workplace.
Without a doubt, this is getting so much attention because those of us in media love nothing more than to cover ourselves. It feeds our outsized sense of importance. However, in this case, we need to dig deep, because it truly does affect our entire society.
Look no further than politics. It’s highly likely that we will be confronting the issue head-on if Hillary Clinton runs for president. If the time comes, and she’s on the final ballot, will Americans be comfortable electing a woman to lead us?
It would be nice to think that the other considerations would make that question irrelevant, but we are a conservative nation. No matter that some of the world’s most effective heads of state, like Angela Merkel, have shown they can run things just fine; we cling to outmoded thinking here in the U.S. of A. Nevertheless, I suspect it will be an issue here and that Clinton’s opponents will exploit it. There’s an old commercial where women are told: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” To my knowledge, no one called Jill Abramson “baby,” but we still have a long way to go.

© 2014 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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