Do Women Lead Differently?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Do Women Lead Differently?   

Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor of the New York Times, says female journalists don’t have “a different taste in stories or sensibility.” A number of top newsroom managers and researchers beg to differ. Thurs., December 1, 2011

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » Male-Dominated Media

Like many female journalists, Jane Eisner rejoiced when the New York Times smashed the glass ceiling and named a woman executive editor of the world-renowned newspaper. Yet she found herself in "respectful disagreement" with the new boss, Jill Abramson, just days after the changing of the guard on September 6.

The point of contention surfaced when Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane asked Abramson if readers would see a change because a woman is now in charge. The native Manhattanite was entering terrain that had been ruled by white males since the newspaper's founding in 1851.

In her response, one line jumped out: "The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn't true," Abramson said in the column that ran in the Times on September 10. She went on to explain that everybody at the newspaper recognized and loved a good story, and it is rare that there are disagreements.

Eisner had no quarrel with that. It was Abramson's denial of the influence of gender that led the veteran journalist to argue on her blog that we all define a good story through personal prisms and experiences, and that a woman might see something a man might miss — and vice versa.

"I was surprised she said it. I wish I had an opportunity to ask her more about it," says Eisner, who spent 25 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer and in 2008 became the first female editor of the national Jewish news organization the Forward.

She wasn't the only one perplexed by Abramson's response. The comment quickly hit the blogosphere, rekindling an age-old debate over whether gender makes a difference when it comes to newsgathering and management style. Uttered by one of the most powerful women in American journalism, the words did not sit well with many females in the profession.

In October,Gawker raised the question: "Do Women Do Journalism Differently?" The response: "Jill Abramson says no."

Megan Kamerick, immediate past president of the Journalism and Women's Symposium, better known as JAWS, wants to ask Abramson two questions: "Did you really believe what you said, and can you explain what you meant by it?" Kamerick, a reporter for the New Mexico Business Weekly, wonders if Abramson felt compelled to make the gender disclaimer because of her new position. "No man would be under the scrutiny she's under," she says. "Everything she says is going to get amplified, dissected and picked apart."

Abramson turned down AJR's request for an interview. But other top female media managers did speak out about the distinctness of female leadership and their own career experiences. It's a given that not all women have the same traits or management styles. But all of those interviewed believe that, in one way or another, femaleness is a factor.

"I think it's true we're all identical in loving a good story, but not all editors will define a good story identically," says Ann Marie Lipinski, who in 2001 became the first female editor of the Chicago Tribune, a position she held for seven and a half years. "Do I think gender plays a role in that case? I suspect at times it does. Being a woman gives you access to some experiences in life that men don't have, just as the reverse is true."

When she was editor of the Tribune, Lipinski, now curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, didn't think of herself as a role model. Some women on her staff evidently did. One of her last conversations before leaving the paper was with a reporter who told her, "I haven't said it all these years, but I wanted you to know what a difference it made to me to know there was a woman in that office."

Abramson's own newspaper has explored the topic of female leadership. An August 2, 2009, New York Times article, "Do Women Make Better Bosses?," provided insight into the influence of gender on management styles.

Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, has read hundreds of studies that compare women and men as managers. In the Times article, she concluded that females tend to be more collaborative and democratic than male managers. "Compared with men, women use a more positive approach by encouraging and urging others rather than a negative approach of scolding and reprimanding... Women attend more to the individuals they work with, by mentoring them and taking their particular situations into account," Eagly told the Times.

Eagly cautioned that main differences were "on the average" and there were exceptions. There was no "one size fits all" modus operandi.

Her findings reverberated during interviews with women who run news operations today and others who used to do so.

Karen Magnuson makes no bones about it — she is a "people person" who likes to give hugs and connect with staffers in her newsroom at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York. "I am demanding, but I also am warm and fuzzy," says the editor and vice president for news.

Could she imagine a male editor describing himself that way?

"Probably not, but I am proud to be both," says Magnuson, former president of Associated Press Media Editors.

On October 19, she hosted a "watchdog retreat" at her home. Staffers spent the afternoon brainstorming ways to expand and advance their investigative reporting on multiple platforms. At 5 p.m., she broke out wine, beer, cheese and crackers so people could wind down before they headed home. "Great way to relax with staff," Magnuson says.

When she was hired as managing editor 12 years ago, she was the lone woman in news budget meetings with white males. She credits former Editor Tom Callinan for charging her with diversifying the staff. "To know I had the support of my editor and that this was a priority meant the world to me," says Magnuson, who took over the No. 1 spot when Callinan left the paper in 2001. She praises him for seeing gender balance and diversity as important to the newsroom.

She agrees with Abramson's point about gender "to a certain extent." It's more about personality and background, she says. "But I do believe that female editors can bring a different perspective to the job, especially if the position has been male-dominated."

It's not unusual for female news managers to credit male colleagues who helped pave the way. Charlotte H. Hall was in the field for 33 years before she had a female boss, but "I had wonderful male editors; I'm not complaining," says Hall, who retired as editor and senior vice president of the Orlando Sentinel in October 2010. "They were my mentors, and I wouldn't have gotten where I did in management without their help and sponsorship."

Diane McFarlin, president and publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1999, lists Seymour Topping among her mentors. She met Topping after the New York Times Co. bought the Herald-Tribune in 1982 and the veteran Timesman arrived to help with the reorganization. He took the 28-year-old assistant managing editor under his wing. "I was blessed to have men like that who were gender blind," McFarlin says.

The Washington Post reported that during comments to newsroom staffers on June 2, Abramson talked of standing on the shoulders of men who hired and promoted her, including Bill Keller, the executive editor she replaced, and former Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld. She also credited women at the Times, "who had to fight battles just to get in the door."

Some women have wrestled with themselves about whether news judgment and leadership skills were gender blind. When she became executive editor of Hampton Roads' Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star in 1984, Sandra Mims Rowe remembers saying, "Oh, no, there is no gender aspect, no chromosomal impact to news judgment. It's all the same." She was 31 years old at the time. Today, she views things differently.

"I said that at the beginning almost defensively," says Rowe, who became executive editor of Portland's Oregonian in 1993. "I will be interested to see what [Abramson] thinks three years from now. I am not saying that smugly. I am talking from experience. My own view evolved over time."

Under Rowe's watch, the Oregonian garnered five Pulitzer Prizes before she retired in 2010. She believes that 90 percent of the time, a page one story is so obvious "you could spot it blindfolded at 20 paces back."

Then there's the other 10 percent.

"Of course there is a gender component. We are a combination of our life experiences, and that is a factor in news judgment," says Rowe, who earlier this year became chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

She cited the following example: Rowe was editing the Virginian-Pilot in October 1991 when Anita Hill testified at Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Hill spoke about offensive statements she said Thomas had made to her at work. She described how he talked of viewing pornographic films showing women having sex with animals and rape scenes. She testified that he bragged about his sexual prowess and wondered aloud one day, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?"

As the story unfolded, Rowe presided over news meetings attended primarily by men. Here's how she recalls the discussion. "The first day, the guys were all going, 'Oh, phew, what do we do with this?' Everybody was churning over the graphic nature of it. I remember saying, 'There is not a woman in the workplace who does not understand this or have some familiarity, whether or not it has happened to her.'..

"That was absolutely influenced by my gender. I was seeing the larger picture that I knew existed. This was about sexual harassment in the workplace."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen faced a similar scenario while she covered the hearings as a columnist for the New York Times. "Some of my colleagues were either skeptical or bemused by the workplace harassment [Hill] described," Quindlen wrote in an e-mail interview. "The women I knew were neither. We were just weary. We'd heard so much dumb, sexist, even abusive stuff during our lifetimes that little shocked us. The columns I wrote about those hearings therefore deeply reflected my experience as a woman. No question."

Wanda S. Lloyd, executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, has no doubt female sensibilities play a role in how she runs the newsroom. When a local woman was murdered three months after getting married, the paper ran a routine crime story, which Lloyd describes as "very well done." But she wanted more.

She met with the reporter and sent him to family members in pursuit of details. "It wasn't just about the crime; it was about the woman. We had a story the next day quoting the daughter saying he abused her from the minute she said, 'I do,' " Lloyd recalls.

On the heels of the coverage, Montgomery's Family Sunshine Center, a shelter for victims, asked the Advertiser to host a roundtable on domestic violence for community leaders. The paper also ran a weeklong series titled "Domestic Silence."

Would a male editor have been as sensitive to the issue? "I would hope so," says Lloyd, one of four editors of the book "The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press." Lloyd cites diversity as a linchpin for more balanced news decisions.

Case in point: Megan Kamerick tells of a JAWS board member who worked at a newspaper where the sports editor failed to cover a local women's basketball team that advanced to the tournament finals. But he did publish a story about a mediocre men's team. When outraged readers asked why, the sports editor said he forgot. Kamerick wonders, "Would he have forgotten if there had been a woman on the sports desk?"

Ten years ago, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was a prototype for how women manage a newspaper. I visited the newsroom for a story in AJR's January/February 2001 issue, "Where Women Rule." At the time, the paper had an all-female leadership team. Diane McFarlin had been in the publisher's chair since 1999, Janet Weaver was executive editor and Rosemary Armao was managing editor.

The women provided a blueprint for changing macho newsroom culture. During interviews, staffers praised the flexible scheduling system, especially for those juggling childcare. A city editor related how his schedule allowed him to spend time with his son after preschool classes some afternoons before returning to work.

Reporters talked about accessibility of supervisors and the lemon meringue pies and brownies that magically appeared during stressful times. They praised the more benevolent atmosphere.

The three women didn't define the differences as just being gender-based; they believed they reflected changes in the industry as whole. Weaver and Armao have since left the Herald-Tribune, but McFarlin talks about a "transitional phase" in which a younger generation of journalists, female and male, seeks more balance between work and family life. McFarlin speculates that could be one reason some young women are not aiming for the top.

She sees a marked difference in her generation of female newsroom leaders. For them, the job tended to be all-consuming. Back in 2001, she said in an interview that "nothing was as stimulating as the newsroom. Nothing as interesting or enjoyable."

Looking back, "I thought, 'Yikes, that sounded horrible,' but for my generation of women, all of a sudden doors were opening and we thought, 'My God, we have to go through them. We can't just say, 'never mind.' We felt compelled to go through the doors women before us had opened. Today there is more opportunity; women feel they have more choices. And that is OK."

Whatever the reason, the number of female journalists in supervisory positions and in the newsroom overall has stalled. According to the American Society of News Editors' newsroom census, the figures have remained basically the same over the past 10 years. In 2001, women accounted for 34.4 percent of newsroom supervisors; today it's 34.6 percent. The percentage of women in the newsroom has decreased slightly to 36.9 percent from a high for the decade of 37.7 in 2006.

Nobody knows the numbers better than Charlotte Hall. Over the years, Hall has kept an eye on the number of women running America's largest circulation newspapers. "Sadly, at times it was zero," she says.

When she looked at the nation's 10 largest newspapers in October, she found only one female editor: Jill Abramson. By Hall's calculation, of the 30 papers with the highest circulation, six, counting the New York Times, have newsrooms run by women — the others are Newsday, Minneapolis' Star Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, Cleveland's Plain Dealer and the Sacramento Bee. "It's never been more than a handful," Hall says.

When she was named editor of the Orlando Sentinel in March 2004, Hall didn't dwell on bringing a woman's viewpoint to the job. When budgets were slashed, she had to cut everywhere, but she favored keeping hard news and watchdog journalism over preserving the full range of feature beats. That flew in the face of popular stereotypes about women's taste in news.

But she was conscious of female representation in stories. "Do women editors go out of their way to seek out female voices? That may be," says Hall, a past president of ASNE. "We may sense a lack of balance in stories more readily than a man."

When Hall was named editor of the Sentinel, she moved a sentence about being the first woman in the job out of the lead of the paper's press release on the development. "I felt somehow that categorized me," she says. "I even felt that when Jill was named. Too much was made of the fact that she was the first."

On October 24, Forbes ran a story on "The 10 most hated and pervasive stereotypes about powerful women." The third on the list was "tough," and Abramson was used as an example. "Despite her complexities, she must contend with being called 'tough' and 'brusque,' making the 'she's-tough stereotype' her least favorite," the article said. Then this quote from Abramson: "As an investigative reporter, I had tough standards and a formidable way of framing and reporting stories, but I don't think of myself as a tough person."

Yet that was a common theme in the stories about her appointment.

On June 2, a Politico story quoted Al Hunt, executive Washington editor of Bloomberg News, saying Abramson's "got more balls than the New York Yankees." Hunt hired Abramson in 1988 when he was the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief. The same Politico story cited an anonymous quote about Abramson in a 1999 Village Voice story: "Balls like cast-iron cantaloupes."

On June 7, the New York Observer quoted New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, a longtime Abramson friend, as saying, "She can both kick ass more than anyone as a news person and make a great salad dressing. That's the ultimate liberation." While the two were at the Wall Street Journal, they coauthored a book, "Strange Justice," about the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. "She is tough as nails," Mayer told the Observer.

The headline for a June 2 Slate story: "Jill Abramson: Built Truck Tough." That was a reference to a May 2007 incident in which Abramson was hit by a truck when she was on her way to work out at the Harvard Club in New York City. The reporter wrote, "She broke her femur and fractured her hip and spent three weeks in Bellevue Hospital. But you shoulda seen the damage to the truck."

In an article on Abramson in the October 24 New Yorker, media writer Ken Auletta described how as managing editor "many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote they thought." Toward the end of the story, Auletta portrays the new executive editor roaming around the three newsroom floors bestowing compliments.

"At the 10 a.m. page-one meeting, she went out of her way to praise editors for their work," Auletta wrote. " 'She really is trying,' " one editor says. " 'How long it will last, I don't know.'"

Pink brain, blue brain. Does sex really make a difference when it comes to management?

Women in high-level positions seem to exhibit the same leadership behavior as their male counterparts, according to a March 2010 article in Psychology Today. "It could be the case that only women who exhibit the same sorts of leadership styles and behaviors as male leaders make it through," psychologist Ronald E. Riggio wrote.

Women and men attack problems with similar goals but different approaches, according to Michael G. Conner, a researcher and clinical psychologist from Portland, Oregon. For women, sharing and discussing provide opportunities to strengthen relationships. Men tend to dominate and assert their authority. "There are no absolutes, only tendencies," Conner says.

In her landmark 1982 book, "In a Different Voice," psychologist Carol Gilligan explored psychological theory and women's development. Through her research, Gilligan concluded that women are more likely to consider moral problems in terms of "care and responsibility in relationships" rather than with the more typically masculine examination of "rights and rules." She believed that morality based on rules alone was incomplete and could become harsh and domineering.

How does that play out in a newsroom?

"Jill Abramson is very much in the culture of the Times, which is largely a male culture, so she had to prove she could be like one of the boys to get in the position she is in," says Gilligan, a professor at New York University. "But does she really think she won't bring something new, something original? It just depends; she may or may not."

Gilligan poses a question: "Is it possible to have no women in leadership positions and lose nothing of value in human experience? I am not saying all women are different, but this is an incredible opportunity for [Abramson]. I hope she takes it."

For the first time, a woman and an African American hold the two highest newsroom positions at the New York Times. Former Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet moved from New York Times Washington bureau chief to the managing editor's office. For many, it is an emotional moment.

"Frankly, I wept," Anna Quindlen says. Quindlen joined the Times in 1977, three years after a class action lawsuit was filed against the newspaper over sex discrimination in hiring, pay and promotion. Seven women at the paper brought the suit on behalf of 550 female Times employees. The suit was settled in 1978 with the paper committing to an affirmative action program.

During the announcement of her promotion, Abramson publicly recognized Quindlen and others who preceded and supported her. She singled out the late Times reporter Nan Robertson, author of the best-selling book "Girls in the Balcony," which is about discrimination at the paper.

Paul Delaney, who spent 23 years at the Times as a reporter and editor, applauds the choices of Abramson and Baquet. "Both are great journalists, and I do expect great things," says Delaney, who for eight years was an editor on the Times' national desk. When he heard the news, his mind drifted back to a bleaker time at the newspaper.

He recalls a lawsuit filed in 1972 by minority group members charging that newsroom managers favored white men in hiring, promotion, beat assignments and wages. According to Delaney, at the time not one black had risen above the position of reporter, and the highest-ranking woman was an editor in "women's news." Women and minorities joined together in spirit during the long struggle, says Delaney, who was one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists in 1975.

Abramson's comment on gender neutrality surprised him. "Maybe she was being coy; maybe she didn't want to upset the white guys on the staff. I can't believe she meant it deep down," says Delaney, who recently completed a memoir about his career at the Times.

For all the hoopla over Abramson's ascent to the pinnacle, what could it mean for women in journalism?

In a June 2 column, the Poynter Institute's Jill Geisler called Abramson's appointment "a big victory in the face of a big void." Both real and symbolic, it could serve as an inspiration, she said. Here are the ways she believes it could make a difference:

• "It can tap old-school publishers on the shoulder and remind them to look beyond their comfort zones when it's time to promote. Old habits die hard. New success stories help kill old habits.

• "It can encourage women in today's newsroom to stick around longer. A 2002 study by the American Press Institute found significantly more women than men in newsroom management were considering leaving the industry. They were less satisfied with their responsibilities and less optimistic about promotions than their male counterparts.

• "It can serve as an inspiration to today's journalism students, many of whom are women. It takes fortitude to pursue a career path in an industry under challenge. Seeing a woman lead a legacy institution into the digital future can be a powerful motivator."

It's premature to predict what impact Abramson's presence will have on the New York Times as it moves deeper into the digital world, or on the journalism profession itself. But if diversity is a hedge against unconscious biases and blind spots, as many have suggested, the Times appears to be headed in the right direction.

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