Why the Jill Abramson Firing Hits Home for All Women

May 16 2014, 4:01pm CDT | by

I admit that I have been obsessed about what has transpired at The NY Times for the last two days. I have read every single piece that has come out of this awful scrum which has really has become about gender, power, leadership and pay equity. I have been profoundly impressed by the female journalists who have given tremendous context to this news. They are part of Jill Abramson and the women of her generation’s legacy. Please take a moment and read I Sort of Hope We Find Out That Jill Abramson Was Robbing the Cash Register by Rebecca Traister and Woman at the Top of the Masthead by Amanda Hess and The Prettiest Girl at the Party by Rachel Sklar and Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired by Ann Friedman.

When the news hit on Wednesday afternoon that Jill Abramson had been fired it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t know Jill Abramson, yet at the same time her story hit so close to home, especially when you think about Hollywood. Abramson’s firing came on the same day that the Cannes Film Festival opened and I spent the day writing and talking about the need for gender diversity at all levels of the film business. It was also the same day that director Jane Campion who is the president of the competition jury at Cannes acknowledged loudly for the whole world to hear, that the film business is inherently sexist and “time and time again we don’t get our share of representation. Excuse me gentlemen, but the guys seem to eat all the cake.”

Jane Campion had the attention of the world and used her powerful position to talk about the need for gender diversity in the film business. Jill Abramson had a powerful position as the Executive Editor of the NY Times and used it to bring up women with her. Under her tenure there was gender diversity for the first time on the masthead, the same masthead that she was summarily deleted from nanoseconds after her boss, the truly disappointing Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., kicked her to the curb. Since I always have Hollywood on the brain, this ridiculous lack of respect reminded me of the story that has now become Hollywood legend when Nina Jacobson was fired from her executive position at Disney while she was giving birth. But she’s clearly had the last laugh and is now probably making way more money and having a much better time as the producer the Hunger Games movies. I look forward to Abramson’s next act.

The thing that blows my mind time and again is that men in power really do not understand how unmoored women get when something of this magnitude occurs in our world. If we lived in a so-called post gender or post feminist world where women had an equal share of the power positions, then maybe, we’d be ok with something like this happening. But we live in a world where having a woman lead the NY Times or the IMF or the Academy or Harvard or maybe, just maybe, our country (in the hopefully not too distant future) still matters a great deal. These role models are how we see the world and when one is kicked off the mountain for no real reason but a bunch of small ones including asking for fair pay, as Jane Campion said at Cannes “women do notice.” We notice that the deck is not stacked fairly.

Speaking of fairness, this story also brings back memories of just how shitty Catherine Hardwicke was treated in the wake of the success of Twilight. She’s about to get an award this weekend from Women in Film and Television International Summit in Pittsburgh and she, god love her, is one of the only women in Hollywood to stand up and say that she was treated poorly and basically kicked to the curb after getting the franchise off to a fantastic start. In Hollywood once you have a success like she did, you are set for life. As she said to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “Honestly, I thought my struggles are going to be over. Now I’m going to get to make the movies I want to.” But the problem is that she wasn’t let into the boys club even with her success because she didn’t have a penis. As she says: “I was still in the girls ghetto.” This is truly an important lesson for all of us struggling in a world full of men in power positions – you may be let in the door but don’t get too comfortable because you won’t be here very long. This was a harsh lesson that director Kathryn Bigelow learned when she was left off the best director nomination list for her award winning film Zero Dark Thirty.

The Jill Abramson saga has a very dark cloud hanging over its already very dark cloud and it is about pay equity. It wasn’t too long ago that women sued the Times because they weren’t being paid fairly and they have sued other media outlets like Newsweek. It seems that Abramson has been paid unfairly for years when compared to her male colleagues and that she only recently found out this fact. I bet she was stark raving pissed. Did they think that she of all people was going to just let it go? This is a woman who co-wrote a book about how Anita Hill was treated. Come on. She clearly opened a can of worms that it sounds like exacerbated an already frayed working relationship with her boss.

This fight for money is something all women who have worked anywhere know about. Demanding equal pay is not a very easy thing to do – just ask Lilly Ledbetter. But by her standing up on this issue  her legacy as a trailblazing feminist is secured. She took a bullet for us all. I am sure that every female reporter at the Times  - and quite frankly every woman in workplaces across the country – are looking at their male colleagues and wondering if he is getting a bigger paycheck than she is. And sadly, the answer, is probably – yes.


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