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Wednesday, December 19 , 2018, 8:49 am | Fair 45º


Susan Estrich: Jill Abramson Latest Example of Subjective Discrimination at the Top

What do they call it when a man gets fired from a top job?

Wednesday. Or, if appropriate, Monday or Tuesday or Thursday or Friday.

When a woman gets fired, it’s called breaking news.

Maybe Jill Abramson was fired from her job as the first woman executive editor of The New York Times for reasons having nothing to do with her being a woman or complaining that she was paid less than her predecessor or being “bossy,” a.k.a. difficult and divisive. Or maybe, in her case, those adjectives aren’t “gendered,” as they so often are when it’s a woman who is being aggressive and ambitious.

Maybe. But you won’t find anybody saying that on the blogs today. There are a lot of cries of sexism, and what is most surprising (to me) is how surprised people (men and women) actually are to hear that sexism might be a factor at the very top for a woman who was a role model in the “Lean In” campaign.

Maybe it’s time for everyone to take a cool shower and get real.

A few weeks ago, I listened as someone who probably wasn’t yet born the last time we went through this exercise exclaimed at how important it was that President Barack Obama was taking public steps to enforce equal pay for equal work. Yawn. That’s been the law since the 1960s.

It actually was somewhat useful in the ’70s — when a department store paid men selling men’s clothes a higher commission rate than women selling women’s clothes. They don’t do that anymore. If you’re doing the same work, you get the same pay. Unless, that is, the guy had been working for the company longer when he got the same job as you, in which case you aren’t really equal at all. And that, apparently, was the case for Abramson.

Actually, it’s almost always the case as you get to the top: You don’t have identical people doing identical jobs, which means equal pay doesn’t actually do you any good at all.

Welcome to discrimination at the top. Everything is subjective.

Will Dean Baquet, The Times’ first African-American executive editor, be “better” than the first woman was?

Abramson has long had a reputation as a brilliant journalist. She also has a reputation as being demanding. On the other hand, every successful person I know is demanding, even if it’s not necessarily the first thing you hear about them. Do we hear more about women being too demanding than we do about men being overly demanding? I think so, but then, I’m the one doing the listening, and that’s subjective, as well. Everything is.

I have no doubt that Abramson’s boss did not experience his decision as an act of discrimination. I am certain that at no time did he ever say to himself, “She should be fired because I can’t stand all these ‘gendered’ things about her” — like being too demanding or divisive (a.k.a., “bitchy” or “bossy”). At one point, he preferred her and promoted her over the man who now has replaced her, and if that wasn’t discrimination, why is it now?

Maybe it isn’t. Maybe a man who did exactly the same things that she did would have been fired just as quickly. No way to know. Discrimination at this level is virtually impossible to prove. There are always reasons. No one, or almost no one, experiences their own motives as discriminatory. And there is never, by definition, an exactly identical situation. So even when you’re the “victim,” if that’s what you are, you can’t be sure.

Abramson was superbly qualified. She aimed to do her job well. She gave it everything she had. Getting to where she got was, well, impossible — until she did it. Maybe it will be easier for the second woman to reach that spot. Maybe not.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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