The Gender Pay Gap and the Ouster of New York Times Editor Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson (left) and Dean Baquet (right) during the announcement that she will succeed Bill Keller (center) in New York on June 2, 2011 Photograph by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times via Redux

The sudden ouster of Jill Abramson from her position as executive editor of the New York Times has raised the idea that a dispute over inequity in pay may have contributed to her departure.

On Wednesday afternoon, the news was announced to the Times’s own staff during a hastily convened meeting. People were “stunned,” according to the Times’s own reporting on the episode. Dean Baquet, previously the Times’s managing editor, would be replacing Abramson. Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said that the change was prompted by issues of “management in the newsroom.” The Times article went on to say that Abramson had been perceived as “mercurial and brusque” and that she had had “clashes” with Mr. Baquet and others. She apparently also had tried to hire a new co-managing editor—Janine Gibson from the Guardian—which caused conflict.

Not long after this news filtered out and set the Internet alight, Ken Auletta offered a broader explanation in the New Yorker:

“Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”

Irrespective of the specific circumstances in this case, such words as “abrasive,” “pushy,” and “brusque” tend to irk professional women, who have come to recognize them from countless studies demonstrating that female leaders are almost always seen more negatively than male ones—a phenomenon also known as the competent-but-disliked dilemma.

The more critical issue, though, is that the gap in pay between women and men is quite real and stubbornly persists at 77¢ on the dollar in spite of the many advances women have made. Even after factoring in differences in occupation, education, and years of experience, according to Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, a significant gulf in female vs. male pay still exists. Still, no one seems able to do much about it.

In April, Republican senators voted down the latest bill meant to address this disparity: The Paycheck Fairness Act would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who discussed their compensation and would have allowed for more government monitoring of what workers are paid.

“I’ve loved my run at the Times,” Ms. Abramson said in a statement, according to the paper. “I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism.” She also noted her elevation of many women to senior positions as one of her accomplishments during her tenure.

According to Joe Pompeo at Capital New York, the Times publisher said yesterday that “when women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.” It would be nice if it were that simple. The gender disparity in the workforce—in compensation, in leadership positions, in the double-standards around management style and physical appearance—makes for a fundamentally unequal playing field. Until that changes, the firing of a woman at the top of her profession will never come without questions about whether gender played a part.

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