There's been a lot of advice out there for ladies in the workplace in the past couple years. First, Sheryl Sandberg told us to Lean In, then a bunch of women argued we should really Lean Out, and then The Atlantic told us it's all about confidence. Now that the first female executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, has been fired, we have to ask ourselves: what can we learn?
'Do Some Salary Sleuthing' — Emphasis on Sleuth
In last June's Cosmpolitan, Stanford business school professor and career expert at LeanIn.org Margaret Neele advised women to "do some salary sleuthing" to make sure they're getting paid what they deserve. "Be sure to find out what the guys at your level are making, so you don't lowball your expectations," Neele wrote.
Abramson did this, but not sneakily enough, apparently. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta reports that she had a lawyer make "polite inquiries" about what the Times' last executive editor, Bill Keller, made. Auletta reports:
“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.
By Auletta's account, Abramson approached what she saw as a fair pay issue as delicately as possible, and it still didn't work out for her.
Lesson: Don't politely ask anyone anything. Stare at your male colleagues until you can see their last paycheck behind their eyes. Maybe try Glassdoor????
Be Confident, but Not Too Confident
In The Atlantic's May issue, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay argue that women's "acute lack of confidence" in the workplace results in less competent but more confident men surpassing them in promotions and pay. What women need, Shipman and Kay argue, is to be confident and take charge. (Sandberg calls this "sitting at the [boardroom] table.")
Abramson was confident. According to Politico, she wasn't afraid to correct managing editor Dean Baquet (who just replaced her as executive editor), and she made her voice heard in meetings. In return, Times staffers anonymously called her "brusque" and "pushy" to Politico's Dylan Byers. She also wasn't afraid to speak up when she thought she was being treated unfairly. New York's Gabriel Sherman reports that before Abramson was even appointed as executive editor, Suhlzberger openly embarrassed her in a meeting. She complained to Janet Robinson, who was then the Times CEO. This did not go over well with Sulzberger.
Lesson: Be confident, but definitely don't ever argue with men in your office, especially if you're their superior or they're your superior.
Be a Role Model for Other Women — Wait, Actually Don't
Sandberg emphasizes throughout Lean In that a big problem at the executive level is that once women reach top positions at their companies, they don't promote or encourage other women to join them.
Abramson, it appears, was proud of her accomplishments and wanted to encourage other women to reach her level of achievement. She did interviews. According to Sherman, this was not good: "Abramson’s appointment in June 2011 triggered a flurry of positive profiles — which seemed to bother Sulzberger. 'He does not like people who promote themselves,' a person close to Sulzberger said."
Lesson: Once you reach a top position in your field, don't talk about it so much, lest your male boss feel threatened.
Lean In, but Not When It Annoys Your Boss
Another Sandberg adage is "don't leave before you leave," which means that even if you have plans for life after your job, keep doing your job to the best of your ability.
According to multiple reports, Abramson knew that she would not be executive editor forever — she talked about leaving after the 2016 elections. Still, she aggressively went after stories and stayed dedicated to producing and fostering good journalism. At least one time, this backfired. Sherman reports that after Mark Thompson was hired as Times CEO, but before he started,
Abramson sent Matthew Purdy, a hard-charging investigative reporter, to London to examine Thompson's role in the Jimmy Savile scandal at the BBC. Abramson's relationship with the two executives never recovered. 'Mark Thompson was fucking pissed,' a source explained. 'He was really angry with the Purdy stuff.' So was Sulzberger. 'He was livid, in a very passive-aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.'
Lesson: Before you Lean In, think about whether or not your male boss will be inconvenienced by that lean.
In summary, we career gals should Lean In and Be Confident but also remain acutely aware of how that might put off the men who work for us and the men we work for. It's what the Princeton Mom has been telling us all along.