The unceremonious firing last week of The New York Times' first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, for her "high-handed" and "abrasive" management style has Abramson's media sisters up in arms. They have come out in droves accusing the paper of sexism and sharing stories about their own shabby treatment at other news organizations.
Politico's Susan B. Glasser, who was forced out after a brief stint leading the national news section of The Washington Post, wrote an eight-page indictment of the male-dominated newsroom culture that makes it exceedingly hard for women in the upper echelons to survive. Kara Swisher, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now a co-founder of re/code, noted how she, along with virtually every woman in the media, is labeled "loud mouthed," "jarring," "strident," and "shrill" for the temerity of being professionally ambitious. Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson, in her column valorizing Abramson's gutsiness, shared a story about how she was driven out of Time magazine by the powers that be.
Such public outbursts might strike many Americans as more than a tad narcissistic. That, in fact, was my initial reaction. What's so special about Abramson that requires so much ink when unfair executive firings are as routine as bad hair days?
However, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that speaking out against sexism is not self indulgence—it's a civic duty.
Now, much of the agenda of American feminists—wage gap, not enough female CEOs, tax payer-covered birth pills, and, the emerging cause celeb, the absence of paid menstrual leave—strikes me as special pleading masquerading as gender justice. (What's next? All expenses paid bikini waxes?) But sexism—holding women to different behavioral standards than men—is a genuine issue in America, especially in workplaces.
For weird and complicated reasons, it's an even worse problem here than it is in my native country, India, the land of sex-selective abortions, dowry deaths, and arranged marriages.
Ever since I came to this country two decades ago as a graduate student, I have been struck by the reticence of American women. I was the one raised on the virtue of submissiveness (ironically, at a time when India's iron lady Indira Gandhi was the prime minister), but they seemed to be the ones practicing it. They were far less inclined than men to raise their hands, voice their opinions, or debate a professor in class. By contrast, Indian women, despite living under far stricter patriarchal norms, tended to be more opinionated, assertive, and unafraid to stand up to men.
What's more, even though gender roles are much more rigidly differentiated in Indian homes, there is greater regimentation of female behavior in professional settings in America. American women must stay within a far narrower range of established norms of speech, clothing (remember the controversy over Hillary Clinton's pant suits and Condoleezza Rice's matrix outfit?), and presentation to avoid raising eyebrows. That's not the case in India, where female leaders run the gamut from firebrands to strong, silent types without being called bossy or doormats.
To be sure, there are fewer women in upper management in India (a situation that is changing rapidly), and they might have to work much harder than men to get there. But when they do, notes Nidhi Lall, former national director of GroupM, a multinational ad agency, they are judged by their results and not "gender-skewed standards." No one really gives a fig if their leadership style is autonomous or consensual. "I have never heard my male colleagues comment on the bossiness level of female supervisors," she maintains. Even the most chauvinistic ones check their masculinity at the office door.
So why are Indian female executives less likely to fall victim to ugly gender stereotypes than their American counterparts?
Part of the reason is America's more sexualized culture in which men and women relate to each other primarily as sexual beings. When men are confronted with women in positions of authority, they don't have neutral criteria for judging them. The standard male indictments of powerful women are that they are too aggressive or too flirtatious or too matronly. All of these, ultimately, say more about how these women make the men feel—emasculated or attractive or turned off—and less about their job effectiveness.
That is not the case in India, where prudishness ironically expands the range of relationship options between the sexes. Women are not merely sexual objects; they have other uses as well! And in a nation built on thick extended families, it is not hard for Indian men to view their women bosses as extensions of their mothers, aunts, or sisters—and therefore worthy of the same respect.
But professional Indian women face less sexism not only because India is more prudish but also because it is more hierarchical: India is ruled by multiple, informal rankings of class, caste, status, office, age, seniority, and, of course, gender. But as women climb up the corporate ladder, the gender hierarchy becomes less operative and the others more so. This redounds to their benefit because, once they reach the top, this means men have to automatically fall in line out of deference for their position, which trumps their gender.
So, in a sense, the greater sexism in America is the result of greater sexual freedom and egalitarianism. But where does this leave sexually liberated American women who can't count on traditional hierarchies to rescue them from endemic sexism? Obviously, donning veils or singing "r-e-s-p-e-c-t" won't do it.
Nor are there any easy legislative fixes for deep-seated cultural attitudes. So that leaves them with only one option: Publicly exposing the double standard. That's why it's a good thing that they haven't let Abramson's personal predicament go to waste. That they are making a stink, demanding explanations as to how the management justifies booting out a woman during whose three-year tenure the paper won eight—eight—Pulitzers.
Give 'em hell, sisters!