Media navel gazers were shocked Wednesday when the New York Times suddenly announced the ouster of Jill Abramson, the paper’s executive editor of two years and the first woman to score the paper's top job.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. It looks like Abramson just fell off the glass cliff -- the shorthand explanation for the precarious position women take on when they climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Researchers from the University of Exeter coined the phrase in 2005 after they discovered that women tend to get promoted to top jobs in times of trouble, making their perches riskier. Though The New York Times isn't in "trouble," per se, it's certainly in a high-stakes race to adjust to the demise of print.
Women CEOs are much more likely to be forced out of their jobs than their male counterparts, according to a recent study from Strategy&. The consulting firm looked at a decade's worth of CEO turnover and found that 27 percent of male corporate chiefs left because they were fired while 38 percent of female CEOs were pushed out.
While Abramson isn’t technically a CEO and we don’t know the exact circumstances behind her departure, it appears she was fired. In a statement, NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said Abramson’s exit had to do with “an issue with management in the newsroom.” Abramson won’t be sticking around to help ease the transition, a spokeswoman told BuzzFeed, a typical step in non-acrimonious executive transitions.
The New Yorker offered a possible explanation for Abramson's ouster in a report published Wednesday evening: She clashed with top brass over her pay and pension, which she discovered was lower than her male colleagues who had held the same positions previously.
"This may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was 'pushy,' a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect," Ken Auletta writes.
There are a variety of reasons why female executives are more likely than their male colleagues to end up on the chopping block, even once they battle all of the obstacles to the top. For one, Americans still prefer male bosses. Women also tend to be hired from outside the company, which can put them more at risk of getting fired, according to the Strategy& study. This wasn't true of Abramson, who was promoted internally to the paper's top job.
In addition, research shows that when women act assertively and decisively -- two traits that are necessary for a leader -- they’re viewed more negatively than men.
Abramson is no stranger to this phenomenon. A 2013 Politico profile of the NYT called “Turbulence at the Times” used anonymous sources to paint Abramson as “a source of widespread frustration” for being “difficult to work with,” while her replacement, Dean Baquet, came out unscathed, despite admitting to slamming his hand against a wall in anger during an argument with Abramson.
As Baquet put it in the profile: “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer,” he said.