Jill Abramson

I never thought she got the big time job at The New York Times because she had an easy personality. She is not a back slapper. She is not gregarious. She is not the woman with the right word for everyone.
I figured Jill Abramson got it because her news sense is laser focused and smart. Because she has been through news wars and been victorious. Because she understood power and used it smartly. Because she loved The New York Times and realized it had to invent the modern strong news organization. Digital is its future. She was brave enough—I figured—to take the risks to make the 20th Century top newspaper the 21st Century top news organization.

The fact she was also a woman made me proud.

I figured we were finally smart enough. Tough enough. Experienced enough.

Like most women I was proud that she was offered, accepted and appeared to thrive in the most prestigious and difficult job in the news world I know – Executive Editor of The New York Times.

And this weekend I’m worn out – that it doesn’t seem to be enough. All the talk about pay discrimination. Woman as Victim. The need for temperament in management jobs.

I had trouble getting my first job in TV news because there was a debate about whether the public would believe a woman. Whether a woman’s voice was authoritative enough. No one ever asked that after I broke a few stories. They didn’t’ ask after I held my own in the newsroom or after I brought the public stories that mattered. Women liked getting their news from other women. And no one wondered whether I had authority.

Management however is a different thing. Most of the really big news and media jobs are men’s jobs. Women are in the newsroom and in the corporation. But fewer women are pulling the strings. Women’s leadership is still a matter for debate.

And being a tough leader and a demanding boss fits a man a lot better than it fits most people’s perception of a woman. Consensus building is a leadership quality that many feel women excel at. Some argue in a 21st Century economy consensus is a must. But no organization works only from consensus. You have to build consensus—but in the end if you are at the top—you must be tough. Jill was tough. No one doubts that.

I saw with amusement the back page advertisement of The New York Times Week in Review section today with the new version of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. It is called Lean In for Graduates.   The ad says: “A handbook that offers instruction and inspiration for the next generation – with six new chapters full of essential advice for entering a competitive job market.”

I am the dean of a Journalism school that is dominated by women as are most. I am at UNC where, like most institutions of high education, women also outnumber men. Women’s leadership is not a short term “hot news item.”   Women are graduating in powerful numbers and will be taking over the top rungs of every office, school, university, non-profit and corporation in American in the next 25 years. This weekend I am not sure what to tell them.
I don’t’ know why Jill Abramson was really let go. But I know it isn’t because she isn’t good at what she does. The paper is as good if not better than it was. If it is because she was too tough – that’s a problem for every newswoman I know and just about every women in charge of anything.

Lean In. Lean Out. I’m really surprised—and rather tired— that this is an issue on our agenda Circa 2014.






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