A vestige of sexual discrimination

This weekend I felt sick in the pit of my stomach for New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and her recent firing. I wasn’t sick because of any personal connection to Ms. Abramson. I had barely heard of her until this episode in her illustrious career in the journalism field. No, I felt sick because she had been dismissed for her outspokenness on her own behalf.

The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, denied his firing had anything to do with Ms. Abramson’s complaints about her salary. In his mind he believed he paid her fairly, as he rationalized in a statement about comparing apples to oranges in overall compensation plans.

Instead, his justification (not that he said it in these words) was that Ms. Abramson behaved too much like a man in her managerial style.  As Sulzberger put it himself he “heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

The superficial analysis of the Internet stories circulating the last few days do not give enough insight into all of the complicated layers of office politics and gender competition. I’m not even a subscriber to the newspaper. But their public airing of dirty laundry is in a way symbolic of what most women of my generation in the work force experience but keep silent about.

We know we earned our way into the management and professional ranks. We also know we continue to be held to an unequal standard of behavior in men that is mostly overlooked and, oftentimes, seen as a rite of initiation for respect. And, if eventually it is outrageous enough that it must stop being tolerated, it’s overlooked for a much longer period of time than what it is in a woman.

In my 20 plus years in the work force, Abramson’s reported managerial style wasn’t much different than the style of most of the men I have worked under or observed. Yet, their tenure spanned far longer than what Ms. Abramson was allowed to hold.

What sucker punched me even more was the discussion on NPR from one of the women who was involved in filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Newsweek for their discriminatory hiring and promoting practices back in the 70s. I had missed until now the back story of the Good Girls Revolt and the bravery these women showed to benefit the young professionals of my generation.

With the same college degrees as the men they reported to, these women were counted on to serve as researchers, assistants and secretaries, completing a bulk of the actual reporting and receiving none of the credit. To rectify the deeply entrenched sexism, a group of 40 women banded together in secret and filed a complaint with the federal agency stating they had been systematically discriminated against.

In the interview, these women acknowledged that their work wouldn’t benefit them: it would be for a later generation, but they regretted they didn’t go ahead and claim unfair paying practices, too.

No doubt about it, I benefited from affirmative action. When I was in college and deciding whether I should apply to the local daily paper for a mousy grunt job in the mid-1980s, I counted the number of women’s bylines in the paper. It fell short of even a quarter of the total of bylines (except in the traditionally women’s dominated realms of the lifestyle section) and I knew affirmative action could give me an extra boost that my gender failed me in.  But with a foot in the door, I still experienced what many women in my college age group experienced: sexual harassment with no publicized recourse to report it to anyone. Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas came three years later after I fled from my entry-level job with a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper.

What gave me the sick feeling is the sexual harassment has stopped being about sexual relationships but continues to be about gender expectations and stereotypes. I’ve resigned myself to the inequity because I plain don’t know how to negotiate for anything different. In my last two salaried positions of working for formalized organizations, I was given a number and I accepted it: no questions asked. Once, in the trenches of the jobs, I learned I could have and should have received more. Even in my no questions asked phase of being hired, I instinctively know more should be offered but my voice was lost.

 With all of her New York City and Washington, D.C., political sophistication, Ms., Abramson was still run out on a rail just like any other shim sham shyster. Maybe Ms. Abramson and other women in my age group are still part of the vestiges of working for justice for women in the work force and shining a light on it. And like the women in the Good Girls Revolt, maybe we won’t benefit from all of the attention of Ms. Abramson’s experience, but it will benefit the next generation.


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