Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Abrasive Myth: Women Are Fired for Traits Men Are Admired For?

A great deal of speculation has swirled in the media in the wake of the firing of The New York Times' first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, and whether and to what extent gender played in this move. One theory has it that Abramson became increasingly contentious with her bosses after realizing that male predecessors in her position received greater financial compensation, even hiring a lawyer; another has it that she took umbrage at the increasing intrusions made by the business side of the operation into the journalistic sanctity of the newsroom. It was frequently remarked that Abramson had a personally gruff and insensitive management style that inspired little loyalty among her staff and strained relations with partners on the business side of the operation. Of course, this is a situation where those with the most knowledge aren't talking, and those who are talking the most know next to nothing. Commentators may never have enough facts about this matter to support the level of significance they want to read into it, but that isn't stopping them.

Jill Abramson © Don Simpson, all rights reserved. Layout and ink.

I don't read The New York Times  on a regular basis, and know of Jill Abramson only from her one or two appearances on Charlie Rose in recent years. From this fleeting exposure, I found her to be intelligent and likeable as a media personality. Personally, I find the narrative of an inevitable conflict between business and journalism sufficient to explain her misfortune. My curiosity, which is not high, is satisfied with this.

What I find outrageous about this situation has nothing to do with the particulars of the matter, but with some of the speculation, which, as noted, can only be made in ignorance of the particulars.

Inevitably, the trope has been floated, on NPR and in other media outlets that, once again, a woman has been fired for demonstrating traits that are found to be wholly admirable in men. These traits include an autocratic management style, insensitivity, callousness, a tendency to run over opposition, generally obnoxious behavior, pushiness, etc.

Again, I have no particular knowledge of Jill Abramson's personal management style, or to what extent it may have played in her termination; in any case this is beside the point.

But what I would like to know is, who are all these men who are supposedly admired for being rude, obnoxious, autocratic, etc., and who are these people who are doing all the admiring? In my experience, no one finds such abrasive traits admirable in anyone, male or female. Indeed, people in positions of authority (and even people not in positions of authority) who demonstrate such traits may be suffered or endured. But admired? I hardly think so.

On the other hand, it is easy to see why certain people may want to believe this old trope. The prospect of evening up real or perceived past injustices, endured when men presumably behaved like untrammeled pigs in some mythical Madmen era, top the list.


In my last workplace, the overwhelming majority of my coworkers were polite, considerate, and cooperative to a fault. The rare few who exhibited the kinds of negative traits described above were certainly not admired. And it so happens that they were not male. In fact, in my experience in the modern grown up workplace, there has been zero tolerance for male misbehavior of any sort, whereas rudeness, obnoxiousness, bullying, etc. seems to be tolerated if not enabled in women, presumably out of fear of facing the kinds of accusations of backlash that have surfaced in the Abramson case. Such enabling made my last workplace, otherwise congenial and collegial, terribly uncomfortable and at times utterly demoralizing, not only for myself but for many of my coworkers.

This is more than a shame. It is a tragedy. Most of all for the women who are encouraged and enabled to be rude, obnoxious, abrasive, etc., because, according to the myth, we admire these traits in men. Such traits are repulsive, in male and female alike. No one admires these traits in anyone, and we need to retire this old trope.

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