The XX Factor

Jill Abramson and the Old Problem of Bitchy Female Bosses

By and large, Ken Auletta’s  profile of Jill Abramson does not commit the sin carried out so many journalistic accounts of hard-charging women—in which behavior that would be considered permissible and even expected in a powerful man is deemed bitchy in a woman. Yes, the profile does perhaps focus a little much on her “brusque” manner—as one writer notes, Auletta uses that adjective twice—but I think he inoculates himself from charges of sexism by comparing Abramson to another brusque (former) New York Times executive editor, Howell Raines. This comparison implies that the problem with being a critical, interrupt-y and perfectionist editor is that it can be demoralizing to staff, regardless of the editor’s gender.

But the key difference between Raines and Abramson, Auletta quotes staffers as saying, is that “unlike Howell, she is not mean.” Abramson is portrayed as not entirely aware of her effect on people. If she is “fierce” and “resilient,” in the words former food critic Frank Bruni, she can also be exacting. “There is some reason that when I am being probing it is seen as criticism,” Abramson says, adding that her children used to tell her to “stop yelling!” even when she wasn’t. “Her negativity is unintended,” an editor tells Auletta. These days Abramson says she’s working to temper herself, to be seen as more approachable to her staff.

Jill Abramson, editor of the New York Times.
Jill Abramson, editor of the New York Times.

Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

All of which brings us back to that old puzzle, so difficult to answer without the benefit of university studies complete with a large sample sizes and control group: Is not the bar for being seen as “brusque” considerably lower for a woman than it is for a man? Auletta quotes one reporter describing Abramson’s political skills as those of a “”black belt’ infighter.” Another reporter described her as the paper’s Washington bureau chief: She was “a loyal friend, someone you’d want in the trenches with you. But if you didn’t meet her high professional standards you were not on her team.” Really, isn’t that what you expect—not to mention what you want—in an executive?