Woman at the Top of the Masthead

The media called her “brusque” and  “polarizing.” But to young women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.

NYT Newsroom
Jill Abramson (right) after hearing that the New York Times had won four Pulitzer Prizes on April 15, 2013.

Photo by Ruth Fremson/Reuters

“Every executive editor stands on the shoulders of others,” Jill Abramson told the New York Times newsroom when she was named the newspaper’s executive editor in September 2011. But not all shoulders are the same. At the meeting, Abramson credited more than a dozen women who had paved her path to become the paper’s first top female editor, including groundbreaking Times reporter Nan Robertson, then-Times CEO Janet Robinson, and opinion columnist (and longtime friend of Abramson’s) Maureen Dowd.

As Times staffers absorbed Abramson’s speech, some younger female reporters looked around and realized that they couldn’t summon a similarly robust list of female compatriots. So they formed the “Old Girls Club,” an occasional after-work happy hour meant to forge relationships between junior women across the paper, which has grown to include some 40 women. They invited Abramson to attend. To their surprise, she turned up at the noisy Manhattan bar, leaned in close, answered every one of their questions, and told dishy anecdotes about how she’s dealt with men who projected their own biases onto her work. “It was awe-inspiring, the way she took that time out of her life to powwow with us, without ever seeming ceremonial about it,” one female staffer in attendance told me. Later, the staffer watched an interview with Abramson on Current TV, where she recalls Abramson saying “It was awe-inspiring to her that we were getting together in solidarity with each other,” she says. “Jill Abramson was inspired by us? That was a total surprise, and it was incredibly heartening to hear.”

When Abramson was unexpectedly fired from the Times on Wednesday—17 years after joining the paper, and just two-and-a-half years after being tapped to run it—media reporters noted that she had made history as the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history. But shooting off that brief line makes it seem as if her contribution to women was as simple as ticking off a box on the Times’ diversity checklist. According to a half-dozen women who worked with her, though, Abramson’s brief stint as the female leader of a male-dominated institution proved to be a transformative experience. By the time she left, media critics would report that staffers deemed her “polarizing,” “bitchy,” and “not approachable.” But to many women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.

The New York Times is a newspaper where mostly male reporters cover industries—politics, media, sports, the military, the courts, the arts—that are also overwhelmingly run by men. With Abramson’s appointment, the Times cemented a female perspective at the top of the masthead for the very first time, and young women on the staff responded instantly. “Among the women here, there was a deep appreciation that another woman was high up at the Times. It symbolically had an impact,” one young female staffer told me. “We felt possessive and proud of Jill, and [appreciated] her stories about [New Yorker reporter] Jane Mayer and her other female friends in journalism,” said another. “We loved that she had all those tattoos,” she continued, referring to the Times’ T on Abramson’s back. “We were curious about her and how she got to where she was in a way that [we weren’t] about senior male editors. This might have been just my imagination, but I felt like I related to and empathized with her in a way I hadn’t with male editors.” A third put it this way: “Jill leaned in before everyone else, ever. Before Lean In. She’s pre-Sheryl Sheryl, but with more style and more class.”

The mark Abramson made on her female employees wasn’t just a matter of optics. Abramson was committed to increasing women’s representation at the paper, and she got results. In 2013 alone, Abramson tapped political editor Carolyn Ryan to replace David Leonhardt as Washington bureau chief and replaced national editor Sam Sifton with weekend editor Alison Mitchell. She also handed over the reins at the Sunday Book Review from Sam Tanenhaus to Pamela Paul, who has since made enormous strides in representing women, both female authors and critics, in the review. Abramson created a race and ethnicity beat at the paper, tapping national correspondent Tanzina Vega to cover it, and poached star local D.C. reporter Nikita Stewart from the Washington Post to report on New York’s City Hall. “It’s a point of pride,” Abramson told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan about successfully achieving gender equity among the paper’s highest-ranking editors. (And Sullivan, also appointed during Abramson’s tenure, is the first woman to hold that position at the Times.) Instead of resting on that accomplishment, though, Abramson told Sullivan that her goal for 2014 was to make similar gains in the paper’s racial diversity. (Ironically, her departure will help further this aim: Her replacement, Dean Baquet, is the Times’ first black executive editor.) Meanwhile, over at the opinion page—which falls outside the executive editor’s purview, and is helmed by Andrew Rosenthal—the ratio of male to female columnists is stuck at a dismal 10-to-2.

Abramson’s presence allowed a new generation of women at the Times to begin to see a possible future in leadership at the paper, but it also helped disrupt the paper’s masculine approach to news coverage—and allowed the paper to benefit from scoops it wouldn’t otherwise get. Under Abramson, some of the paper’s biggest stories over the past three years were narrated by women. Jodi Kantor, tasked with covering the Obamas, told stories about women behind the campaign, from Sasha and Malia to Obama donor Penny Pritzker. Andrea Elliott illustrated the hopelessness of homelessness in America through the eyes of Dasani, a 12-year-old girl. The paper brought breast cancer to the front page with an arresting image that flouted the Times’ typically strict decency standards by showing the edge of a survivor’s areola. And after Abramson called a big roundtable meeting with female staffers to discuss how the paper could better cover women in its pages, the talk produced a number of leads that got into print. One standout was Amy O’Leary’s 2012 investigation into the sexual harassment female gamers face, a feature that predated widespread media reporting (including mine) over the problem of virtual sexual harassment. It’s not that these stories wouldn’t have appeared under other editors, but with a woman calling the shots—and explicitly courting stories about other women—female staffers at the Times told me that their perspectives felt more valued than ever.

Not that Abramson ruled the newsroom with feminist zeal. “I don’t think she would ever see herself as doing anything explicitly feminist—it’s not like she goes around and talks that talk—but she does it anyway,” says Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at the George Washington University who published an ethnographic study of the Times newsroom this year after spending five months embedded in the newsroom in 2010, when Abramson was managing editor. “Jill also had this ability to work across genders—she was hanging out with the geeky programmer guys, too. She’s gone to all these places we don’t traditionally associate as female spaces.” According to Usher, who has continued to study the Times and has interviewed Abramson many times for her work, “she engaged in technological spaces in a way no man at the Times had ever done. She was one of the boys when it came to technology—I hate to stereotype, and it’s terrible to use that term—but she was.”

None of this appeared in Politico reporter Dylan Byers’ April 2013 account of Abramson’s tenure at the paper, which quoted anonymous staffers who depicted Abramson as a “stubborn,” “condescending,” “difficult,” “impossible,” “uncaring,” and “unreasonable” woman who is “not a naturally charismatic person,” and by the way, has a voice like a car horn. (Shot down as sexist at the time, the Byers narrative has now been exhumed in the wake of Abramson’s firing.) Female staffers told me that some of the assertions in Byers’ piece were exaggerated accounts of Abramson’s real weaknesses. But they were quick to enumerate her other qualities: loyalty, warmth, brilliance, tenacity, goofiness, command of culture high and low, exquisite taste, and a lack of pretension. Many felt that the media narrative that had coalesced around Abramson after the Byers piece recalled how women at the Times themselves had been caricatured throughout their careers. If anything, the story spurred many women in the newsroom to grow even more fiercely protective of their editor.

Of course, Abramson’s short tenure atop the Times did not usher in a new gender-equitable utopia at the paper. “I have worked many places, but nowhere more sexist than the New York Times,” one young female staffer told me. (“We don’t have a great culture of female solidarity at the Times,” is how another put it.) “There’s still very much an Old Boys’ Club atmosphere here. It’s hard to pinpoint—it’s that uncomfortable kind of sexism you don’t know what to do with.” The staffer didn’t blame Abramson for that environment, but said she felt that her perch at the top was sometimes invoked by others to elide the Times’ more diffuse woman problem. “It’s nice to pretend that we’re past gender,” the staffer told me, “but we’re not.” (Tell that to Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who, after fielding comments from editors who said that Abramson’s firing wouldn’t “sit well” with female Times staffers, reportedly responded to the effect of: “When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.”)

Let’s be clear: None of this is to say that Abramson was the perfect manager. Even her young acolytes aren’t under the impression that she’s the Second Coming. Some admitted that now is not the time they’d be likely to dish dirt on her. There are hundreds of Times staffers with whom I didn’t speak. And we don’t yet know exactly what led to Abramson’s firing; it’s possible that she is legitimately to blame. But regardless of her idiosyncrasies and her faults—all bosses have those—Abramson made a big dent in the Times’ masculine culture, and even women at the Times who didn’t personally like Abramson respected her for that service.

For some staffers, her contributions only came into focus when she disappeared from the masthead. Shortly after Abramson was appointed executive editor, another bright female journalist graduated from college. When she landed a job at the Times, “I never thought to be surprised that our editor was a woman,” she told me. “But in retrospect, it meant a lot to be able to look at the woman at the head of the table … and take for granted that it could someday be one of my peers sitting there.” This sounds so simple, but for women who are just mounting the career ladder, it can be just enough to keep them climbing. “I’m not claiming she changed the way I approached my stories or my career, besides giving me a little extra subconscious confidence,” the staffer says. “That’s probably how it should be: I never wanted ‘being a woman’ to be at the head of my résumé, and I’m guessing she didn’t, either. I just wanted to produce good work. And she proved that, yes, being really good at your job can be rewarded just as much for a woman as for a man.”