Lessons from Jill Abramson’s Departure

The firing of Jill Abramson, former executive editor for the New York Times, is still making headlines a week later mainly because she is a female executive who might have been ousted for being pushy and brusque. She also may have gotten a bad rap for questioning why her compensation was less than her male predecessor’s salary.

While this might seem like a case that is isolated to the private sector and perhaps even just the newspaper industry, I believe it holds lessons for the public sector as well.

As a former newspaper reporter, I find it very curious that she would be penalized for being pushy and brusque. That describes every editor I ever worked for and they were all male. Polite is not an adjective often used to describe editors.

Abramson’s story reminded me of the Howard/Heidi study that Sheryl Sandberg writes about in her book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Researchers wrote up two case studies about an entrepreneur. In one case study, the entrepreneur is called Howard and in the other Heidi. In both case studies, the entrepreneur has the same traits – outgoing, big personality, relying a huge professional network to become successful.

When the students were asked to rate Howard and Heidi on their accomplishments and whether they are appealing as colleagues, they all agreed that Howard and Heidi are equally successful. However, they rated Howard as the more appealing colleague and someone they would want to work for. In contrast, the students said Heidi was selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

I am not sure why successful, strong women are penalized for the same attributes that we expect and want successful, strong men to possess.

Here is my challenge to you: Think about the female managers you work with. Is there one you find to be difficult? Do you think she is pushy and selfish? Would you be more forgiving and more appreciative of her traits if she were a man?

There is a good chance she is only guilty of being female, not of being aggressive.

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