Having a Woman At the Helm Really DOES Matter

Firing Jill Abramson reverts the ‘Times’ to a passively sexist environment—like nearly every other business.

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The day after Jill Abramson’s abrupt firing from the New York Times, the media tried to make sense of what had happened to cause the first female executive editor to be unceremoniously canned from the “paper of record.” 

Many pieces posited whether or not it had to do with the ingrained sexism of the paper’s culture; some wondered if it was true, as The New Yorker reported, that she had been fired after inquiring why she was being paid less than her male predecessor. Some wondered if she had, in fact, been a terrible manager; others surmised that perhaps her relationship with Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger was fraught from the beginning. No one knew—and no one will likely know, because there is probably a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that was signed as a matter of course.

But one piece in particular stuck with me, and made me very sad indeed. It was Amanda Hess’s piece in Slate, “Woman at the Top of the Masthead,” which explained why “to young women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.”

(I should state here that I very occasionally freelance for the Times, I have never met Abramson herself, and I have defended her in the past when Politico ran a sexist hatchet job on her last year.)

In the piece Hess quotes Times women who were grateful for Abramson’s presence and her support. They recount how she courted them for award-winning, news-breaking ideas, put women in top appointments in the paper, increasing the masthead to 50 percent women, and, in general, seemed to express genuine curiosity and interest in the women who were working there—wanting to know how they got where they were, what they were working on—in ways that their male editors did not.

Abramson’s behavior, if these stories are true, is illustrative of why it is bad when a company like Amazon or Apple hires almost exclusively men (75 percent of their staffs are male), or how an industry like tech or finance suffers when it has a homogenous workforce, or why there are almost no women at the top of most major companies, and why that will not likely change unless the ratio does.

Sexism or racism is sometimes not just something that is active behavior committed against another person or group of people—it is sometimes the absence of action that makes a workplace isolating for someone who is “not like the others.” When a woman is at a workplace that is exclusively white and male, where many of its employees come from Ivy League backgrounds, an “old boy’s club” mentality is baked in.

One study, “Hiring as Cultural Matching: the Case of Elite Professional Service Firms,  conducted by the American Sociological Association, found that hiring is a “process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms.” The author, Lauren A. Rivera, wrote that outside of seeking people who were qualified, employers sought candidates who were “culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles.”

In other words, they chose people they’d like to get beers with.

This phenomenon is also why, if you look at the top of a masthead of most magazines, you’ll still see mostly male names, why men dominated front-page bylines by a ratio of three to one, why most radio hosts are male, why most of the top-tier literary magazines feature more pieces by men. Hint: It’s not ’cause men are smarter or more talented.

If a white dude is at the top, he will almost certainly hire mostly other white dudes. He’s not doing it to be intentionally racist or sexist; he’s just hiring people he is comfortable with. There’s that saying—it’s who you know, and if you are a white guy, you probably know and work with mostly other white guys. It’s an endless loop of writers who become editors and who hire other writers just like themselves. (Conversely, the Times’ came under criticism for the new Culture department, all white women, appointed by Abramson. (Full disclosure: I am friends with two of those women).

Golf, social clubs, whiskey drinks after work, and other bonding sessions between male colleagues happen effortlessly. A 1992 study by Herminia Ibarra titled “Homophily and Differential Returns: Sex Differences in Network Structure and Access in an Advertising Firm,” published by Cornell University, showed that in a workplace, men tended to develop relationships with other men only (called homophilous ties), but that women cultivated a wider range of relationships. Ibarra analyzed the business relationships of an advertising firm and found that people tended to hang out with people just like themselves—that extended to networking and to mentoring. (But Ibarra found that while men tended to mentor women, they didn’t “sponsor” them—meaning, when it came to promoting, or supporting the women they mentored, they fell far short.)

Homophilous relationships do have some advantages: Barria writes, “Social homogeneity in the workplace makes communication easier, behavior more predictable, and fosters relationships of trust and reciprocity, thus also enhancing instrumental relationships.”

So it may not even occur to a male boss that by asking his male colleague for an after-work beer he is inherently excluding women in the office, or that it exhibits a form of favoritism.

Perhaps, men bonding with their female employees off-site creates a weird sexual frisson—The Guardian wrote about the obstacles women face in male-female business meetings in a piece, “Why Women Can’t Have Business Dinners with Men”: “Adding to the issue is that men often misinterpret friendliness from a woman as sexual interest or flirting. Signals are easily misinterpreted. One former Merrill Lynch financial adviser recalls being told to keep his office door open when talking with female clients.”

But it’s just another subtle way that women feel excluded from the daily conversation. Perhaps this is why one person told Hess that the Times’ atmosphere was “that uncomfortable kind of sexism you don’t know what to do with.”

And if you couple a workplace that is predominately male with male egos, then you are certain to exclude all but the most confident and brazen of women. Adrian Furnham of University College London found that even though men and women are essentially of equal intelligence, men overwhelmingly think they are smarter than women. With this combination of ego and arrogance, you have innumerable instances where women are disregarded and overlooked simply because some men still think girls are dumb. (Furnham also depressingly found that even if a woman was much smarter than her male counterpart, she had less confidence and rated her intelligence lower than a half-witted man who thought he was the cock of the walk.)

While a lot of men (usually white) gripe that hiring via affirmative action isn’t fair to the more qualified person (read: male), they also overlook that it is important that a range of people be represented in a workforce—particularly a newspaper. Women and men think differently about the same subjects: The types of questions women might think to ask during an interview, the specific people they choose to interview, even the very subjects they gravitate toward, all serve to change the shape of a story and of the newspaper as a whole.

This is why Abramson mentoring and sponsoring a host of extremely qualified women into top jobs was so important to the Times’—and by extension, journalism’s—future. What’s even sadder is that it may not happen again for a very, very long time.



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