Will we ever really know why? Photographer: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images
Will we ever really know why? Photographer: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

(Clarifies nature of actions by Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg in fourth paragraph.)

It's hard to read the story of Jill Abramson’s firing and not think of sexism.

Ken Auletta, who wrote a much-read 2011 profile of her, says that management viewed her as “pushy” and “brusque” -- “a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” I’d say fairly so; this is how women who adopt a masculine leadership style are often viewed. Because the alternative -- adopting a more self-effacing and consensus-oriented “feminine” style -- tends to get you stranded in lower-middle management, it’s fair to worry whether Abramson is the victim of an unwinnable double standard for female leaders. One of the major explanations offered for her firing is that she started seeking a new manager who would either report to or co-manage with her subordinate, managing editor Dean Baquet, without consulting him. But how often does that result in the subordinate getting his boss fired? Did publisher Arthur Sulzberger view her, consciously or not, as an arrogant woman who shouldn’t be bossing around Baquet?

Some reports said that she was fired after she complained that her predecessor, Bill Keller, had been paid more than she was -- a contention that the New York Times disputes. As a good capitalist, I’m sympathetic to any boss who doesn’t want to pay his workers more than the minimum they’ll accept. Still, if you’ve ever met any people on your visit to our planet, you should be prepared for the possibility that this is going to come out -- and that on that day, you’re going to have to sheepishly shrug your shoulders and up the pay packet. Especially if you are the New York Times and you have spent so much ink and column space crusading for more equal pay for women. If this report is indeed true, it is deeply troubling.

Most notable of all is the way she was fired. She seems to have been given no opportunity to address the newsroom, no fig leaf to resign, no sinecure consultancy to a department no one cares about. Indeed, management seems to be going out of its way not to say nice things about her. That’s less than Howell Raines got after he presided over Jayson Blair's falsifications and plagiarisms and Rick Bragg's high-profile violation of dateline and byline rules. Which of her offenses was so grave that higher-ups are going to such extraordinary lengths to humiliate her? It’s very hard for me not to suspect an element of masculine umbrage to this, a determination that Abramson should not merely be let go, but also put in her place.

And yet, we’ll never really know, will we? This is what troubles every ambitious woman: You’ll never really know how big a role sexism plays in your setbacks. There is clearly an element of sexism in how women are treated in the workplace. But just as clearly, women are not superhuman martyrs who only fail when the patriarchy sabotages them. Some women, like some men, really are excessively pushy, abrasive, difficult and domineering. Some are stupid or wrongheaded. Some just aren’t very good at inspiring others, setting priorities or determining the correct strategic focus. Some are good managers who make bad mistakes, not special-woman kind of mistakes, but just boring-old-human kinds of mistakes.

I have seen women inappropriately censured for doing things that men got away with, even got admired for. I have also seen women who failed at their jobs attribute their failures to sexism, rather than their own technical or organizational weaknesses. Unless you were there, you can’t really know … and even if you were, there will almost always be doubt. Would a man have been given more time, and better mentoring, to grow into the role? Are the men in your office really getting away with more because they are men or for subtle reasons of personality?

One of my favorite bosses ever was so abrasive that his personality could have been used to peel paint off exterior walls. His favorite technique for offering constructive feedback began “McArdle, you’re an [expletive deleted]!” Could a woman have gotten away with this? Probably not. But I can’t think of any other men who could have, either. There is a fine line between being a curmudgeon and a jerk, and he had an unparalleled instinct for staying just on one side of it. He got away with some outrageous statements because he was fiercely devoted to the people who worked for him and more exacting of himself than of anyone else -- and he was also very, very funny.

However obvious sexism is in the aggregate, it is much less clear in the specific. Ironically, the women who are most likely to succeed are probably the women who are quickest to blame themselves, because blaming yourself at least gives you some belief that you can control the problem. This may be why successful women are disproportionately likely to report feeling like impostors -- and also to shy away from challenges that might be beyond their abilities. As Hanna Rosin writes:

Reports about her from the newsroom have always been mixed, as I reported in an earlier Slate story. Many women were inspired by her. I’ve heard people describe her as honest, exacting, funny, loyal, and very generous. More lately, a word I heard was “depleted,” as if the more harsh, negative sides of her personality were casting a gloom on the newsroom, as if she could not quite carry the stress of the job.

Maybe that’s a good enough reason to fire someone. It would be odd if politics dictated that you weren’t allowed to fire a woman, even if she was the most powerful woman in journalism. But the way it happened makes it hard to read the newspaper’s own front page story and not see Baquet, Sulzberger, Keller, and all the powerful men in the history of the Times on the inside and one loyal tattooed soldier now out.

All of which is to say that people are complicated. Situations are complicated. You can show that, statistically, women are discriminated against, and I believe this, and want to change it. The problem is that no individual can be a statistic. So we will remain haunted by what we can know for sure about our sisters but never about ourselves.

To contact the author of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.