Opinion

What's really at stake in Jill Abramson's ouster from The New York Times

It doesn't take a woman to dismantle the old boys club — but it does require someone "pushy"

The firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has understandably set off a flurry of speculation. Abramson, a longtime investigative journalist and the first woman to helm the most prestigious newspaper in the country, was suddenly let go after a relatively brief three-year tenure. And when a high-powered woman like Abramson is let go in such an unusually unceremonious fashion, as Rebecca Traister points out, it's hard not to question the role her gender played in the way she was treated.

There are red flags: the fact that she was called "pushy" while men exhibiting similar behaviors are often called strong; the idea that she was pushed off a glass cliff; and that the final straw was Abramson's push for a raise commensurate to her male predecessor.

There are also signs that this was just a rather run-of-the-mill clash of personalities, management styles, and visions. The man who ultimately made the decision to fire her, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., reportedly said, "When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are" — which can be read as a callous dismissal of women's concerns or an unwelcome reminder that equality applies to the bad stuff too.

While the claims and counter-claims about whether this was in fact sexist continue to pile up, it is important to remember what is really at stake here in terms of women in media. Because if the goal is to have more women and people of color represented in media in all tiers, we should worry a little less about who is on top and more about what the top brass is doing to make that happen.

Abramson was committed to newsroom diversity. During her reign she pushed many women up the ranks, and is leaving with a newsroom where half of the top-ranking editors are women, including Pamela Paul at the Sunday Book Review and Margaret Sullivan as the first-ever female public editor. When asked by Sullivan about these changes, Abramson said, "It's a point of pride."

But attributing this commitment exclusively to the fact that she is a woman is a mistake. As VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has illustrated with its yearly count of women in media, there are a number of female-helmed publications that have remained predominantly white and male in the last five years, while other male-led ones have shown real progress in featuring more female bylines.

Take for example the progressive weekly The Nation, edited by Katrina Vanden Heuvel, where contributors were nearly 75 percent male last year. Harpers Magazine, edited by Ellen Rosenbush, had a similar breakdown. Meanwhile, literary journals Tin House and The Paris Review, both helmed by men, have made much progress in recent years; in last year's count, the former even had more women than men writing. Tin House editor Rob Spillman said this happened through systemic changes, and not just hoping that eventually feminism would work things out.

It doesn't take a woman to dismantle the old boys club, just someone who is tired of the same old voices and is willing to put in place systems that will change things. This isn't something that can happen overnight. At the Times, even with the addition of all the high-ranking female editors, female byline representation accounts for only a third of the newspaper's stories, and most of those bylines rested above articles about "pink" topics like style and children. I don't point this out to minimize the importance of female editors, but only to illustrate that a more diverse newsroom, and newspaper, involves much more than having more women on top of the masthead.

While seeing Abramson lead a meeting surely had a tremendous symbolic impact on the female staff, we can only hope that her successor, the first-ever African American executive editor Dean Baquet, will have a similar one. His presence at the head of the table is another important first. But more important than his background is how devoted he is to carrying on Abramson's commitment to diversity in all areas of the newsroom and on the page. That's what makes the difference.

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