What Jill Abramson’s appointment as NY Times executive editor could mean for women in journalism

Plenty of women who are — or used to be — in journalism are cheering for Jill Abramson. They see her ascendance to leadership of The New York Times as a victory, both real and symbolic. In real terms, her promotion to executive editor makes history; she’s the first woman to run the paper. Symbolically, it’s a big victory in the face of a big void.

According to the latest ASNE census, women hold just 34.6 percent of the supervisory roles at today’s newspapers. Abramson’s promotion doesn’t move the needle much on that number right now. But it can help.

  • It can tap old-school publishers on the shoulder and remind them to look beyond their comfort zones when it’s time to promote. Old habits die hard. New success stories help kill old habits.
  • It can serve as an inspiration to today’s journalism students, many of whom are women. It takes fortitude to pursue a career path in an industry under challenge. Seeing a woman lead a legacy institution into the digital future can be a powerful motivator.

There’s another reason to be pleased about this historic promotion. Those of us who came to journalism in the 1970’s, as Abramson did, know how women struggled against discrimination. The Society of Professional Journalists didn’t even allow women into its self-titled “fraternity” until 1969.

Read Nan Robertson’s book about “The Girls in the Balcony” and you’ll learn that in 1974, women at the New York Times filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the paper. The suit pointed out that not a single female name appeared among the 21 editors and executives on the paper’s masthead, and that the average weekly salary of male reporters was $59 higher than that of female reporters. The paper settled out of court and distributed back pay to 550 women.

We’d like to think things are much better now — that times (and the Times) have truly changed.

The New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson, left, and honoree The New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira attend the 2010 Matrix Awards presented by the New York Women in Communications at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday, April 19, 2010 in New York. (Evan Agostini/AP)

Will the Times be a better news organization under the leadership of a woman editor? Those of us who have felt the sting of stereotyping may hesitate to declare one leader better than another, simply on the basis of gender. But one prominent biological anthropologist, Helen Fischer of Rutgers, makes a pretty compelling argument. She’s  an expert on gender in the workplace and on how contemporary research demonstrates the unique competencies of women.

In an essay for the 2009 book “The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press,” Fischer wrote:

“Indeed, women’s power is likely to escalate, because many of our business environments need the skills of women: their verbal skills, their collaborative and nurturing leadership styles, their mental flexibility, and, increasingly, their tolerance for ambiguity.”

I hope Jill Abramson proves her right. And I hope for more.

As one of those women who’s introduced as a “first” in her field, I remind people that being first is really just a function of history, not exceptionalism. Many talented candidates have always been there. It’s up to all of us who open the door to make sure it opens ever wider.

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Lorraine, thanks for linking to your story. I interviewed Caroline Titus last year (http://journ.us/ki52Z2); she does great work at The Ferndale Enterprise. I’m glad you’re bringing it to readers’ attention. –Julie

  • http://www.facebook.com/lorrainedevonwilke Lorraine Devon Wilke

    Great article and really valid points. 

    As much as I’d love to never have another conversation about gender disparities in the workplace, particularly places where men have held roost for time immemorial, the ascension of Jill Abramson IS noteworthy. So much so that her story compelled me to explore the general topic of women running newspapers (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lorraine-devon-wilke/ferndales-enterprising-ed_b_876184.html) and it’s a tidy group, that’s for sure! Personally I think the slant and perspective of women (and say what you will, it IS different than that of men) will bring refreshing nuances to the jobs they take in the media. I wish Ms. Abramson’s all best in her new position and will look very much forward to the New York Times in her able hands.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bradleyfikes Bradley J. Fikes

    At this late date, Abramson’s gender shoiuldn’t be the topic of discussion, but her attitude toward the Times, expressed (and then memory-holed): in the NYT article on her appointment:

    “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”

    Can we call her Pope Jill I?

  • Anonymous

    If this was 1975, I would say “wow, this is just amazing and bravo…” …but hey, boys and girls, it’s 2011 and this “first woman’ thing no longer matters. Especially when Maureen Dowd, whose columns I always love and read even over here in Taiwan, writes of Ms Lagarde in her recent column as wearing “nude patent BRAND NAME high heels” in her office …..true quote, who care what brand of shoe she wears or do only women care about such things, Maureen, big step abckwards there…and at end of story, about how Mrs Lagarde flexes her muscle benearth “her black ANN TAYLOR jacket”……who cares about which brands women wear? Do NYT stories about male CEOs speak of their ARMANI suits or BRAND NAME shoes or underwear? get over it, Maureen, brand names is a juvenile pink ghtetto way to talk about Lagarde…..plus ca change, plus c’est la meme…..and i sent this note to Maureen too. so she has seen it….stop the BRAND NAME stufrf already. grow up! men and women, both, grow up! says 62 year old Peter Pan me!

  • http://twitter.com/zepol Chris V. Lopez

    Jill Abramson is among many, many successful women in newspapering and journalism. Amanda Bennett, Susan Goldberg, Mi-Ai Parrish, Vikki Gowler, Karen Magnuson, and on and on are all top editors and publishers in the industry. While it’s great that the NYTimes has elevated its first female to the editorship, she is among an extraordinary list of women excelling in journalism.

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  • Anonymous

    I congratulate Jill Abramson and The New York Times, but I don’t think this will change much for women in journalism. It isn’t a very family-friendly career. On the news desk, the hours are unpredictable and somewhat inflexible. Lots of women I’ve known have either transferred to other departments or left journalism altogether.