If you haven’t heard about Jill Abramson getting ousted by the New York Times, then you’re sitting under a rock. Every major publication has written about it, including the New York Times itself, and continues to write about it. The piece I particularly enjoyed was Ken Auletta’s for The New Yorker, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired.” Ironically enough, two weeks after this news, we are all still wondering why she was fired.
Most have attributed it to Abramson inquiring about her compensation. As Mr. Auletta wrote, “Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”
If Abramson truly was inquiring about her pay, would we not call this “leaning in?” I mean, I would. In that case, Mrs. Abramson did exactly what Sheryl Sandberg has been encouraging us to do since her first TED talk was filmed in December 2010, when she started to slowly launch her campaign about women leaning in. This then led to her publishing a book about it in March 2013, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” and the launch of the Lean In organization.
If we can confidently classify what Abramson did as leaning in, then that is what got her fired. Then leaning in is not the answer to our problems.
I have had an issue with Sheryl Sandberg’s message ever since I watched her TED talk four years ago. I also read her book, which further confirmed my issues. I am not criticizing Sheryl, because I do respect her as a woman and how she has succeeded in her career, but I will wholeheartedly criticize her message.
I believe women have been leaning in for longer than any of us have been alive. Some of the women that have are, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Indira Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, just to name a few. When I think about these women and many others, I think about the courage they had to push the boundaries to achieve their goals. However, the boundaries that face us today, particularly in the business world, are going to take a lot more than just leaning in.
The three things that Sheryl outlined for women, both in her TED talk and her book are, sitting at the table and taking charge of your career, making sure your partner is a real partner and having the support you need to be a working mom, and to not leave before you leave, in terms of women thinking about having children, because as Sheryl put it, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore. . . . She starts leaning back.”
Now I ask you, didn’t Jill Abramson take charge of her career by inquiring about her pay? Of course she did! And where did that leave her? Without a job. I realize there are probably a number of other issues surrounding her being let go, but when you read about those, such as her being “too pushy” it just feeds into why we have such deep-seated issues when it comes to women in power positions. I think when Sheryl was leaning in regarding her career, most of it was probably good luck and timing, and I would go further to say she had a great support system.
The whole “making sure your partner is a real partner”. I don’t know about you, but again this is about luck. I’m blessed beyond belief to have the husband I do, but not every woman has a wonderful, supportive partner. Actually, this goes for both men and women. The dynamics of relationships today has changed so much over many years and we’re still adjusting to these changes. However, if you were to analyze many relationships across the globe, most are still traditional when it comes to the roles of men and women. It’s almost naive to say make sure your partner is a real partner. Just because that’s what you have found in your life, doesn’t mean everyone will be able to find that too.
Finally, about working women having children that start to slowly bow out of being proactive at work and leaning back, I don’t even know where to begin. For one, when the United States has a general maternity leave for three months with zero pay, it’s just atrocious. Of course women start leaning back, it’s still a stigma to be a pregnant, working woman. They don’t want to lose their jobs while being pregnant, they want to have some security during their maternity leave, and to pray that there’s a job waiting for them after the three months.
I get Sheryl Sandberg’s message, it’s just a lot easier said than done. The issues that face women are not going to be solved by leaning in, they really are not. Jill Abramson had every right to inquire about her pay and quite frankly, she was very brave to do so. At that moment, she wasn’t just fighting for equal pay for herself, she was doing it for all of us. She was leaning in for all of us, unfortunately, it left her without a job. When leaning in concludes in this manner, it’s time to change the message.