Does NYT's Jill Abramson Have It Worse Than Her Indian Sisters?

Sexism might be the result of America's greater sexualization and egalitarianism


Jill Abramson
Cornelia Griggs/Instagram

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!

This column originally appeared in The Week. You can find Dalmia's Week archive here.

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  1. I just got a feeling of deju vu

  2. No, its not a valid complaint. Haven’t we been through this already?

    1. Yes, we have.

  3. I’m not sure why “abrasive” and “high-handed” are dog whistles here. Maybe she actually was, you know, abrasive and high-handed. Plenty of men get canned for those attributes.

    1. There is a woman in my office who is convinced the only reason she’s not the boss is that she’s a woman. When in fact, it’s because she has the people skills of an angry baboon and the personality of a pissed off hippopotamus. Any man with her [lack of] interpersonal skills wouldn’t be the boss either, but you’ll never, ever convince her of that.

    2. Being a woman must do wonders for your self-esteem. Anytime you fail at anything, you can blame sexism.

  4. maybe the complaint is valid. Does it make me a bad person to not give a shit that this is happening at the NYT?

    1. It makes you fairly common, I suspect (like me).

    2. Same here.

  5. You never hear men complaining about being treated as second class citizens in the workplace. Take a lesson, ladies.

    1. Minority males sometimes do.

      It’s all about identity politics working in a collectivist mindset. The particular class (gender, race, whatever) aggrieved shifts with every story, but the mentality remains the same.

  6. my first boss was a woman and that was 30 years ago. Her being the boss, shocking as the feminists would find it, had zero to do with being a woman and everything to do with knowing her shit. She never played the female “hear me roar” card; she just expected you to do your job and see her if there were problems or questions.

    Maybe the reality is that Abramson really was a shrill bitch just like a male version of her would have been a prickly bastard. Neither is attractive nor fun to work for, chromosomal differences notwithstanding.

  7. Looks like the comments are being a bitch again.

    1. Yep. 8-(

      Seriously, Reason — WTF?

  8. What gets me about the sexism charges is not whether they are real. Of course sexism happens, not everywhere all the time, but often enough. What gets me are the implications that 1. It only happens to women (I’ve worked in enough female dominated workplaces to know that’s a lie, even though it’s rare to find a place like that) and 2. It’s an isolated blemish in the otherwise wonderfully objective American workplace.

    The average workplace is a rich and diverse tapestry of political bullshit and prejudices. Anyone who acts like one tiny facet of that is the only thing stopping our society from workplace utopia is fucking delusional.

  9. 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.

    Like voting, answering jury summonses, and registering for the draft?

    1. Glad I wasn’t the only one to hone in on that – WTFITS??

      Rand had a term for this absurd idea of “civic duty” – Sanction of the Victim.

      I’m very disappointed to see this casually used in the pages of a publication that represents itself as libertarian, or as caring about freedom.

      I don’t normally jump on the Shikha-hating bandwagon, but this is over the line.

  10. 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.

    Like voting, answering jury summonses, and registering for the draft?

  11. Unlikable bosses come in three categories – they’re sociopaths who don’t have any concern for anyone but themselves (but if you can put up with it you might be able to ride coattails upward), they actually think they know everything that needs to be known even though they don’t, or they’re scared because they don’t know what they are doing and they make up for their lack of competency by being an asshole – as if they being an asshole first is justified because of everyone else’s incompetence. Just one look at Abramson and I’m thinking category #3. Possibly #2, but more likely #3. She just has that look of someone who would be in over their head and make up for it by lashing out at everyone else. And bosses in category #3 usually have a patron who looks the other way. It usually takes snapping at the hand that feeds you to get the discharge. She likely was an asshole to the wrong person who didn’t want to look the other away anymore.

    1. Had a boss (male) who fit category 3 perfectly…and I suspect that you’re right that Abramson falls into that group. It sounds like the NYT owner was the patron who decided she just wasn’t worth the trouble.

  12. American women must stay within a far narrower range of established norms of speech, clothing…

    Someone please explain the point that Shikha was trying to make here.

    I understand that she means that American women generally have a more restrictive dress code than Indian women. But, why even mention it when most offices require men to wear a standard suit/tie or khaki/buttondown uniform every day?

    1. ” I understand that she means that American women generally have a more restrictive dress code than Indian women. ”

      In what way is this true?

      1. I didn’t say it was true. I said I understood the assertion. Are you asking me to prove that I understand what she meant?

        1. Of course I don’t want want proof of your understanding, no need for pedantry.

          You seem to take the statement as given and go with it.

          I think it’s backwards.

          1. no need for pedantry.

            He wasn’t being pedantic, he was pointing out your misunderstanding.

            You seem to take the statement as given and go with it.

            You seem to be illiterate, or stupid, as he clearly says the opposite

            I didn’t say it was true. I said I understood the assertion.

          2. There’s nothing like writing a post and have it disappear into oblivion.

            Anyway, I’m sorry if that seemed rude. That wasn’t my intention.

            The point that I was trying to make is that, even taken at face value, the statement is meaningless at best, and may undermine what she was trying to say.

            I generally agree with most of what Shikha writes, but after reading the article again, I think the whole thing is trash. If she expects me to believe that American men “don’t have neutral criteria” because they view their mothers, aunts, and sisters as sexual beings unworthy of respect, she has a lot more convincing to do.

    2. American women must stay within a far narrower range of established norms of speech, clothing…

      This is delusion, pure and simple.

      Look around the office. Who is displaying a wider variety of clothing? The men or the women?

      Ask your HR guy or attorney: whose speech is scrutinized and penalized more around the office, men or women?

  13. Shikha, don’t you get it by now? How often do men have to tell you that sexism doesn’t exist?

  14. Er, cause celebre, maybe?

  15. Nearly everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve left because I was failing to be promoted at the rate I expected – overall I was being under-appreciated. I was never fired and once I handed in my resignation, they would always ask me to stay on as long as possible – most people would be asked to leave immediately. I have stayed with my companies for 5-8 years at a time (far longer than the average 2 years for my industry) and when I left my coworkers would be shocked that I was leaving. Where ever I work I was always in charge of important projects and when I left more often than not both the project and eventually the company would implode. Differences between the perception of importance to a company has always been why I left – and it was always costly to the companies I left. I am a man. I am a human. This shit happens to everyone. If you feel you are under-appreciated then leave and prove yourself right.

  16. ‘Jill Abramson, for her “high-handed” and “abrasive” management style’

    Sounds kind of, I don’t know, BOSSY, don’t you think?


    What they might consider sometimes is just *who* is calling *whom* ‘abrasive’?

    My experience is that it’s the namby pamby progressives who take offense and call anyone ‘abrasive’ who doesn’t spend all day patting everyone on the head, stroking their egos, and “validating” them.

    Validate me, validate me, won’t someone please validate me?

    Most men I know appreciate coworkers and managers who will *get to the point* and *make decisions*. In my experience, and to my tastes, most female managers would be more effective if they were *more* abrasive, *more* assertive, and *more* BOSSY.

  17. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out

  18. So, to sum up, Indian professional women are treated with respect because they behave respectably, both inside and outside the office.

    Maybe if American women behaved respectably, they’d be respected.

    I work in tech, have for 20 years, and about 1/3 of my company is Indians, including a proportional number of very technical Indian women. Something you will never, ever hear an Indian (or any Asian woman coworker, for that matter) woman doing in the office is swearing. You will never see an Asian woman coming to work dressed as either a plaid-shirted and polar-fleece-outfitted mountaineer, a yoga instructor, or a ten-dollar whore–which is one of the three most common styles for American women I work with. Asian women don’t swear at work–not even the younger ones, not even the ones who completed their educations in the U.S. They dress appropriately for a professional environment.

    When you’re at the office holiday party or summer BBQ, the females you’ll see staggering around, drunk off their asses, stuffed into clothing that reveals way more than you ever wanted to see, smeared makeup all over their aging faces as they wail out horrible karaoke or try to hit on younger male coworkers at the buffet…they’re American, and occasionally European. You will never see Asian female professionals behaving like this.

    What a concept: behave respectably, get respect. Who knew?

  19. I think the author has a valid point about the impact of the cultural difference between India and the US, especially with respect to hierarchy. However, I don’t think making a stink is the right solution. Women who feel unfairly treated could start their own companies. If they treat women fairly there, then they will presumably get good employees and become successful. I am not seeing this trend grow as rapidly as the victimhood industry, though.

  20. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Shikha should just stick to writing about immigration…

  21. If I were the Prime Minister of India, I’d give monthly social security pensions to all married woman in India.

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