The lady vanishes. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
The lady vanishes. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

With the recent ousting of executive editor Jill Abramson, the New York Times has been offering a master class in How Not to Fire Someone. If the only way to carve an elephant is to sit down with a large block of marble and chip off everything that does not look like an elephant, the way to fire an executive editor is to sit down with a large block of marble and chip off everything that does look like the Jill Abramson firing.

I don’t know the facts behind the firing (as everyone hastens to note at the beginning of authoritative-sounding 1,000-word pieces on the subject). This will not prevent me from speculating wildly, mentioning Abramson’s tattoos numerous times and complaining that, on this day as all days, it is not easy to be a woman. Whether or not this is in fact what did it.

Really, the mistake the Times made was in hiring a woman to run things in the first place. On the evolutionary scale where one end is Clubbing and Dragging Ladies Out of the Workforce and Back to Our Caves, Specifically the Kitchen Area of the Cave, and the other is Appointing Women to Leadership Positions Without Having to Make a Big Deal About It, we are still a tad farther to the left than we might like.

We are at exactly that point in history where you still get cheers for appointing a female head. But in proportion to the cheers on hiring come the boos on firing.

All in all, this episode has supplied ample reasons not to hire a woman. Here are just a few:

1) Women are supposed to make less money on the dollar than men, but when you try to offer them a lower salary they get upset?

2) You can’t describe a woman with adjectives because if you use any adjective WHATSOEVER people get all indignant and say, “You wouldn’t call a man that” even if the adjective in question was “manly” or “handsome” or “not emotional like a woman at all.”

3) You can’t just fire her suddenly without a real explanation or people start propounding cruel theories about your workplace culture, even if that is probably not the real story here.

4) Even if she doesn’t do or say anything overtly feminist, people will write hordes and hordes of thinkpieces about her and that will be distracting to everyone who is trying to just do some work around the office without getting bitten on the leg by a rogue thinkpiece.

5) There still isn’t a parity between men and women in leadership roles and so somehow she has to be an Ambassador for Her Gender even if she might prefer to be a person most of the time instead of Leaning In everywhere she goes.

6) A media outlet can’t publish a series of strange attacks on her leadership style, loosely implying that she is a witch who turned a guy at the copy desk into a newt but then he got better, without people getting oddly indignant about it. (See 2).

7) If you hire a woman, you have to work with a woman and women are icky and have cooties and sometimes families.

8) What if she really IS a witch?

9) What if she mentors young women? What if people start thinking this is normal? Will we have to go through this later with them?

10) Unfortunately, the sole set of circumstances where people will actually encourage you to remove an Empowered Female Head of Something or Other is in cases where she is literally Paula Deen. Which happens both more and less often than one might like.

Eventually we want to reach the point where the only Big HR news will be that a person has fired a person and replaced that person with another person. But, as this episode shows, we’re not there yet. And until we get closer, this firing serves as a textbook case of what not to do.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.