As journalists scrambled Wednesday evening to understand why the New York Times had unexpectedly replaced its first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, one reporter offered up a bombshell answer: Abramson had confronted the Times' top leaders about her pay after learning she made less than her predecessor.
The New Yorker's media writer, Ken Auletta, reported that Abramson had recently discovered that her pay and pension were less than that of Bill Keller, the editor she succeeded, and that she made "polite inquiries" about the disparities. A Times spokeswoman responded back in media reports, saying Abramson's pay was "directly comparable" to Keller's and her pension benefit is based on her compensation and years of service.
Whatever Abramson actually made compared with her male peers, her exit was surely about more than a discussion over money. The reason for her departure, as Auletta acknowledges, has been attributed to Abramson's management style, her clashes with other senior Times leaders, and a conflict over her decision to hire a new outside deputy.
Still, the 'unequal pay' theory ricocheted around the Web, touching a nerve with women who indeed have to play by a different set of rules when it comes to asking for more.
Study after study has shown how women are at a disadvantage when it comes to salary negotiation. And it's not just because they're less likely to ask. Research has shown that when women do push for higher salaries, they can easily appear self-serving and demanding, two traits that go against traditional female gender norms. And when women step outside that "narrow band" of behavior that's deemed acceptable (by both men and other women), it has high costs. Not only are they less likely to receive the pay boost, but it can also put them at a disadvantage for getting future promotions.
Of course, many see Abramson's situation as a case study in the uphill battles female leaders face on more issues than just pay. Plenty will view her ouster as yet another example of a woman falling off the so-called "glass cliff," a term for how women are disproportionately put into difficult leadership roles where the chance of failure is high. Others see the descriptions of her "brusque" and "mercurial" management style as examples of gender stereotypes, and doubt whether a man with the same characteristics would get equal grief for them.
Whether Abramson really does embody these gender plights or simply wasn't a good fit for the job, we don't really know. What we do know is that on Wednesday, the journalism world lost one of the few women who occupy its seats of power. In fact, it lost two of them: In France, the editor of Le Monde also left her job on Wednesday, resigning after what she called "personal and direct attacks" from staffers.
By my count, just three of the 25 largest U.S. newspapers now have a woman in the editor's chair. Women make up just 36 percent of newsroom staffers, according to a 2014 report by the nonprofit Women's Media Center, a number that has barely budged since 1999. And the nation's three most prestigious newspapers and four newspaper syndicates, the same report finds, have male opinion page writers that outnumber women by a ratio of four to one.
Improving those disturbing statistics isn't going to immediately upend the double standards that have traditionally held women back. These stereotypes are practically hard-wired into the way we view men and women in leadership roles. But the more women reach — and retain — these top jobs, the more those views will change over time. And when that happens, maybe we'll be able to talk about why Jill Abramson lost her job and how effective she was as a leader without wondering what gender had to do with it.