Who You Calling Brusque?
One morning in spring 2007, Jill Abramson was crossing 44th Street in Manhattan when a delivery truck turned the corner and ran over her foot. After stitches, blood transfusions, and a titanium rod placed in her femur, Abramson left the hospital having secured her spot as one tough woman in the journalism world.
Or is that "brusque"?
Or "trailblazing"? Or "polarizing and mercurial"? Or "confident"? In a culture confused about women leaders, we've had trouble landing on the right Abramson Adjective.
These words are among the many used last week to describe The New York Times's first, now fired, female executive editor. For a newspaper that's struggled to retain women leaders, Abramson's 2011 appointment rang of historic import. "The Times is a place where truck-size egos constantly careen past newsroom cubicles and down the aisles," wroteSlate's Jack Shafer, referring to her accident. "Her superheroine powers as both immovable object and unstoppable force will come in handy."
Abramson, whose love for her job is tattooed on her back, joined the staff in 1997 as Washington bureau chief, later becoming managing editor. Like all leaders, Abramson had critics. Even some of her devotees said she could be "short with people, curtly cutting them off in mid-sentence." In a funny detail in Ken Auletta's exhaustive New Yorker profile, she would tell staff, "You have to read my book." But the same big personality that irked some peers also likely helped secure her the executive job. During her tenure, the news team gleaned eight Pulitzers as well as more women reporters and editors. At the least, she probably caused Clifton Daniel to roll over in his grave.
So why did Abramson get fired? The theories are still flying. Many of them raise questions of unequal pay, despite a statement from the Times's publisher that Abramson was outearning predecessor Bill Keller. Others note her failed attempt to hire another woman as co-managing editor, a move opposed by the new and first African American executive editor, Dean Baquet. Still others fixate on her supposed pushy/brusque/mercurial manner. Whatever the theory, it's hard not to read the story as gendered—as a story not simply about a leader but about a female leader, one who seemingly fell off the "glass cliff."
As managing editor of CT print, I found the Abramson story hit a nerve—a brusque nerve, you might say. You see, when I'm at work—especially at a workplace where there's always more to do than can be done—I like getting things done. Checking items off a daily to-do list gives me great pleasure. Yes, even more pleasure than a mani-pedi, a shopping trip, or dark chocolate. Add to this that I'm an introvert in a hallway full of other introverts, and sometimes I overlook the social dimensions of office life. A colleague once told me I can be "brusque." I let this sink in for a day, then approached him the next morning. "I know that I could stand to be warmer," I said, warmly. "But, I wondered if some of my male colleagues are also being asked to work on their warmth and sociability." He assured me that they were, and I can honestly say we're all getting pretty good at treating each other like fellow humans.
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