In a single week earlier this month, Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor of the New York Times, resigned under duress, and Natalie Nougayrède resigned as editor-in-chief of France's leading newspaper, Le Monde, complaining in an open letter of having been undermined. What, if anything, do these high-profile dismissals tell us about women in senior workplace positions?
The Times announced Abramson's departure in a front-page story filled with barbs and swipes, the kind of piece that even the most ineffectual senior male editor never sees in print upon his dismissal from a job. Abramson fought back assertively in a brief battle for public perception, with someone having leaked details of an $80,000-plus gap between her salary and that of her male predecessor in the same role.
On both sides of the Atlantic, observers mused predictably over the woman's "management style." Abramson was described as "pushy," while Nougayrède was "authoritarian" and "Putin-like." No one, incidentally, friend or foe, made the case that either woman failed in their business objectives during their tenures. Their style was the substance of the coverage—and thus of the backlash to that coverage.
It was bizarre to see Abramson, a top investigative reporter whose task was to help reporters get the story against many obstacles, be castigated as "peremptory," aggressive, tough, and "sharp"-tempered. How was she to do her job without those attributes? Had she been otherwise, she would have been castigated as a weak, indecisive leader.
One would think that by now we had moved beyond a double standard in how men's and women's leadership styles are perceived. Unfortunately, for women in charge, a "management myth"—akin to the "beauty myth" or to Betty Friedan's "problem that has no name"—persists. And, as long as there is a perceived problem with women's leadership styles, no woman can lead a major organization so soothingly, diplomatically, and charmingly that epithets like "pushy," "bossy," and "Putin-like" will not follow her the minute someone wants to shove her out the door. The question is not about women's leadership styles at all; it is simply about moving the goalpost.
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