Jill Abramson, the Glass Cliff and How a Woman “Should” Lead

On Wednesday, May 14, Jill Abramson was publicly pushed off the cliff.  New York Times

In a move that by all accounts shocked the hallowed newsroom of The New York Times, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. announced that Abramson was leaving her role as executive editor due to “an issue with management in the newsroom.”

What quickly followed in other publications and across social media was a different narrative; one in which during her three-year tenure, Abramson led an organization that garnered eight Pulitzer prizes and successfully integrated more women writers and voices into the mix. But it was also an organization where she believed strongly that she was underpaid and where she was quietly, and without attribution, seen by some as pushy, brusque and high-handed. Plainly, it appears she was let go because of leadership style issues, not performance. Sulzberger countered that he had little choice because of on-going management issues, including Abramson’s pursuit of an editor at The Guardian for a role equal in stature to her #2, Dean Baquet, which would have lead to Baquet’s defection. A pursuit that was done in conjunction with NYT’s CEO, Mark Thompson. Bad management or smart succession planning?

A story with these hot-button issues is bound to attract attention. There is a lot of unpack, as they say. Yet for all the juicy details and palace intrigue, something else may be afoot; something that is chilling to contemplate as greater numbers of women step into executive leadership roles – the glass cliff. The glass cliff is a term born from research conducted by University of Exeter professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2004. Ryan and Haslam found that once women break through the “glass ceiling” they find themselves in territory their male peers never occupy. It is territory where a woman leader’s position is more precarious than it seems, due either to her ascent during a time of crisis or from the relative lack of support and resources available to help her succeed. For these women, it is truly lonely at the top.

The 2013 Chief Executive Study, an extensive look at CEO trends conducted by Strategy&, could not have been better timed. Although the study projects women will make up close to a third of all CEO roles by 2040, today they fill only about 3% of the top job ranks. The study also found that women CEOs are forced out of their roles more often than their male counterparts. Could this be the glass cliff in action?

Confronting style issues in leadership is tricky, especially when comparing what is deemed as expected and acceptable behavior in male vs. female leaders. Judging a leader on his/her performance is clear-cut: you either make your numbers and build a strong, sustainable organization or you don’t. Style is not so clear. Even what most would see as bad behavior – yelling, dismissiveness, favoritism – carries with it an unequal cast. I’ve seen many instances where such behavior was overlooked in a male leader who performed, the behavior excused away as a sign of his commitment to delivering results or his passion for what is best for the organization. The women I’ve worked with who acted this way, and there were not many who dared do so, were seen as difficult, overly emotional and unreliable. Their behavior was viewed as anathema to how a women leader “should” behave, regardless of performance.

Yes, bad behavior is not acceptable, regardless of gender, and it should not be tolerated. Ironically, women who do not display traditionally masculine attributes in the workplace are sometimes penalized for not being tough enough. But if that woman displays hyper aggressive behaviors in the workplace she is judged more harshly than her male peers who exhibit the same.

So how, exactly, should a woman leader behave? How narrow is the space she can occupy in terms of style and approach? It seems this space is pretty narrow, almost too narrow.  Even more to the point – does a woman have the freedom to be a bad boss?

For Jill Abramson, the answer was “no.” She broke through a journalistic glass ceiling only to find herself perched on the glass cliff. If her leadership style in the newsroom was truly harmful for the environment and journalistic integrity of the paper then, of course, her ability to lead should be called into question. If her leadership style was not feminine enough though, in spite of her performance, then she is victim of a bias toward style over substance. In either case, the message to female leaders seems to be “you’ve come a long way, baby, just watch where you step.”

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