Are Girls Still in the Balcony?
What the commentary around the Jill Abramson/NYT affair is saying to the next generation of journalists
In 1974, seven New York Times employees filed a lawsuit against the organization because women were getting paid less than men for equal work. Their cause, which Nan Robertson shares in her book, “The Girls in the Balcony,” ultimately led to a class action suit on behalf of 550 Times employees.
That case did not dissuade women from pursuing journalism careers. Thirty years later, the vast majority of journalism students are women. At the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, where I have been dean for just over a year, a full 75 percent of our majors are female.
My leadership role in a college that sends hundreds of young women into the media workplace each year causes me to consider the Jill Abramson affair in different terms than I might have during my three decades on the front lines as a newspaper editor and publisher. The controversy is disturbing enough on its face. What concerns me even more, though, are the messages that its commentary is sending to an emerging generation of women leaders.
As everyone surely knows by now, Abramson was unceremoniously terminated last week from the top newsroom position at the New York Times by her boss and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger. As is always the case in a potentially litigious situation, the principals are constrained in what they can say. So it is left to all of us to deduce what actually happened.
A prevailing theme is that the relationship between Abramson and her employer frayed over the issue of equal pay. It also has been widely reported that Abramson’s management style was the issue because she could be “difficult” and “abrasive.” Sulzberger has denied the salary inequity and reinforced the leadership issue, but no matter: The hue and cry has begun anew over the classic roadblocks thrown in front of women.
It could be true that Abramson is the victim of gender bias, which would be a profoundly sad reversal of her elevation to what is arguably the top newsroom position in the nation.
What may be even more lamentable, though, is how the Abramson story is tending to cast the specter of gender bias as a given.
Consider what our journalism daughters must be hearing as their battle-weary role models weigh in with alarm over Abramson’s plight: You are more likely than not to be paid less than men in the same roles, you will be stereotyped as difficult if you merely assert yourself, you will be punished for standing up for yourself — and, most concerning — the deck is always stacked against women.
Is this really what we want them to hear? More to the point, is it true?
Let’s change that narrative. We should focus on how sexism has faded over the years, tamped down by the effectiveness of women in positions of power, instead of joining the debate over the likelihood of bias in one high-profile case and what it says about the universal condition of women.
We should encourage the next generation of women to combat stereotyping, not fall victim to it. Haven’t we observed how countless women have navigated top-level positions without gender fallout?
I often advise young women who aspire to leadership roles that there are things they can do to succeed without compromising their characters.
The women of my generation, and the trailblazers before us, had to take on an edgier persona to prove that they could go toe-to-toe with the men in the room. That is less often the case now. In fact, the nurturing, collaborative style that tends to come naturally to women can be a highly effective way to lead.
The best leadership advice I can give our students — women and men — is to govern by the Golden Rule. You can be strong and assertive without being resented if you treat your colleagues with respect and empathy. In fact, empathy is where women have the edge as leaders.
Trust is important, too. Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register and most recently director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, nailed it in a recent article in which she observed that the fundamental issue for Jill Abramson and Arthur Sulzberger was one of trust. Certainly, when it is necessary to call in the lawyers, the situation has become irreconcilable.
I am not suggesting that we should coach young women to allow themselves to be the victims of discrimination. But I am saying that we should prepare them to go into the workplace with a sense of strength, not weakness.
The gender-equity landscape is strewn with research that exposes a key reason why women don’t enjoy the same level of success as men: an all-too-characteristic lack of self-confidence. Women say they hesitate to ask for more compensation, to raise their hands for promotion, to take an assertive role as a leader.
Surely the narrative around Jill Abramson has done little to bolster the confidence of young women.
The “girls in the balcony” played a significant role in my own career. When they filed their suit in 1974, it was just eight years before the New York Times Company purchased the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune, where I was a very young assistant managing editor and the only woman at the table for the daily page-one meeting. I might have languished at that level had it not been for the NYT, and the NYT might not have opened so many doors for me had it not been for the girls in the balcony, who challenged the company to ensure equality for its women employees.
While cleaning out 35 years worth of files at the Herald-Tribune before leaving for the University of Florida, I found a memo that a high-level editor of the Times had written in 1983 after assessing the Herald-Tribune newsroom for its new owner. He suggested that I should be considered for the managing editor role when the man who had held that job for many years retired.
I feel certain that his recommendation was inspired to some extent by the girls in the balcony. But it also was indicative of a time when a woman with obvious ambition could catch the wave of advancement in a way that had not been possible before. I was promoted to managing editor, then executive editor and publisher.
To the young women at UF and around the country, I have this to say: Don’t allow the assumptions underlying the coverage of one circumstance to dissuade you. Instead, focus on the extraordinary success of women like Jill Abramson, the doors opened by the girls in the balcony, and how you can pave the way for the generations that follow.
Diane McFarlin is dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. Prior to joining the College in January 2013, she was publisher of the Herald-Tribune Media Group in Sarasota. Under her leadership, the Herald-Tribune Media Group, the largest media company in Southwest Florida, was touted as an industry leader in media convergence and digital innovation. McFarlin has been active in state and national media organizations. She is a past president of the American Society of News Editors and has served six times as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes.