Jill Abramson (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Jill Abramson was right to get a lawyer: "Pushy" women get paid

NYT editor's bringing a lawyer into a pay dispute may have ended her career. But she made the exact right choice


Katie McDonough
May 16, 2014 7:49PM (UTC)

The New Yorker's Ken Auletta is single-handedly making the New York Times look very, very bad about this whole abruptly forcing out its first and only female executive editor thing. Here's the latest development in a series of damning reports:

It is always hard to say what causes a final break -- a firing, a divorce -- but, clearly, a last straw came a few weeks ago, when [former executive editor Jill] Abramson ... decided to hire a lawyer to complain that her salary was not equal to that of her predecessor, Bill Keller.

There's more in the piece -- about management style, about some understandable friction between Abramson and her successor Dean Baquet -- but by Auletta's account, it was the involvement of a lawyer that may have sealed Abramson's fate. Times' spokeswoman Eileen Murphy confirmed as much in an email, telling Auletta that, "The issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration," though she denied that it was a direct factor that led to her ouster.

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And while the exact circumstances of Abramson's departure remain a mystery to everyone except Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., Auletta's speculation that the presence of a lawyer would alienate (even anger) her employer seems pretty easy to swallow. Because nice women don't get legal counsel involved. Only bitches lawyer up.

Callous movie and television mothers bring in lawyers in divorce and custody cases to act as blunt instruments against their negligent -- but always affable, of course -- husbands. (I am a child of the 90s, so the first example that comes to mind here is Sally Field's mean mommy character in "Mrs. Doubtfire," but the trope is well worn; there was a "surprise, I have a lawyer" moment a few episodes back in Andy Daly's "Review," too. This list could go on.)

While it is impossible to overstate the cultural significance of "Mrs. Doubtfire" in our current political climate (just kidding, but its treatment of gender norms is another piece altogether), perhaps it's more important to note here that the inherent suspicion of women who involve lawyers in disputes about gender discrimination was on full display during the debates around the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the recent failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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Critics of both measures couldn't understand why having an extended window to take legal action against your employer over pay discrimination or a measure allowing women to share salary information without fear of retaliation -- which would likely empower them to take collective legal action -- would be necessary. During an interview with Sheryl Sandberg on Fox News, Megyn Kelly called equal pay measures "fuel for lawsuits" -- an idea which she attributed to Sandberg herself, who wrote that the threat of litigation can shutdown conversations about fair wages.

And when discussing Lilly Ledbetter -- which is such a powerful structural corrective to pay discrimination shenanigans that states like Texas are fighting really, really hard not to enforce it -- Paul Ryan dismissed it as not being about equal pay at all. "Lilly Ledbetter was not an equal pay law. It was about opening up the lawsuits and statute of limitations," he said. "It wasn't an equal pay law, and of course, we support equal pay." This remained the GOP talking point when Republicans acted in lockstep to kill the Paycheck Fairness Act back in April.

This is pretty epic bullshit. The reality is that if a woman's employer has been paying her less than her male colleagues -- sometimes for years and through many different positions -- then why should she trust an internal process to remedy that? To be polite? Bringing it back to Abramson, if she was in fact being paid less than Keller -- and less than her colleagues during her time as managing editor -- why wouldn't she get a lawyer to let the Times know she was serious about rectifying the disparity? That it was actually unacceptable that she wasn't being compensated at the same rate as her male predecessors and colleagues?

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This is why talking about equal pay or gender discrimination as individual cases or as something that can be fixed with bootstrap ingenuity misses the larger point that these are structural problems that need structural remedies. "We'll do better" and other expressions of good faith around shifting cultural norms are essential to the process, but far more important right now is taking a wide lens to these issues and pointing out that we can't keep playing catch up when it comes to sexism in the workplace. We need (and thankfully have) labor movements challenging systems, pushing for accountability and demanding policy.

These things are proactive, they empowers women to advocate on their own behalf. Labor policies like Lilly Ledbetter shift the balance of power (ever so slightly, though never enough) between workers and bosses. Lean in all you want, bridge the confidence gap until you pass out, but if you don't have laws in place that let you take your boss to court over intransigent sexism, then where does that leave you? Where does that leave women with less institutional power and visibility than Abramson?

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I would personally much prefer to be the bitch who gets paid than the nice lady who doesn't. That sounds like the calculation that Abramson made, too. And it sounds like she was punished for it.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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