Why Jill Abramson’s firing strikes such a nerve

I experienced sexism in journalism before I even entered the field.

I walked into my high school counselor’s office during the spring of my junior year. This was the big appointment, I had been told — the one concerning senior year, my college choices and, therefore, the “rest of my life.” I’d met this woman perhaps twice previously, but I expected my ever-expanding list of extracurriculars and my grades — all A’s in almost entirely honors/gifted and Advanced Placement courses, with the exception of a B-plus in one semester of Honors Algebra II with the school’s notoriously difficult math teacher — to give her an idea of the schools I was applying to (i.e., top schools, some in the Ivy League).

“So, Kathryn,” she said as she glanced over my transcript, “any idea what you want to major in?”

I smiled. “Yeah. I want to go into journalism and be a magazine editor.”

She glanced up from my transcript and said almost condescendingly (but in a sickeningly sweet tone — it is the South, after all), “Oh, well, isn’t that nice. Well, I know of a good journalism program you should apply to.”

Missouri. Syracuse. Northwestern. Columbia. NYU. I knew the list, too. Even Georgia had a pretty good program in the Grady College of Mass Communication, if I had wanted to stay in the state.

“Have you ever thought about [state school not at all known for journalism but very much known for its ‘MRS degrees’ and poor academics]? I think that would be a good school for you.”

Trying to hide my shock and keep my jaw from dropping, I politely informed her that, no, the school had not been on my radar, and that I planned to leave the state and apply to schools such as the aforementioned.

She looked at me, almost shaking her head. “You do realize those schools are hard to get into, right? You should really keep [school] in mind. I really think it would be a good fit. And it has lots of majors, in case you change your mind about journalism.”

I was in disbelief — a woman who was supposed to help me plan for a successful academic and professional future was actually encouraging me to aim lower.

But it only got worse.

I had a few electives open for senior year. Before I could say anything, she suggested that I take “practical, useful courses” such as home economics and cooking. (Not that those classes don’t teach useful skills, but they’re not useful for competitive college applications and a career in journalism.) I informed her, slightly less politely than the last time, that I would be taking Advanced Placement courses in psychology and art, in addition to Advanced Placement courses in literature, calculus and economics.

She asked me if I was sure I could handle that. Even less politely, I said yes.

The rest of the conversation went very similarly. By the time I left the room, I was fuming.

Although a lot of memories of high school have faded or have been forgotten entirely, that meeting’s something I’ll never forget.

— — —

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a family who has supported me in every choice I’ve independently made, and several excellent teachers who have challenged me to work my hardest and have encouraged me to follow my dreams. But that episode made me realize that, unfortunately, not everyone is as supportive of women having high professional aspirations.

This initially puzzled me. I had never really come across this type of discouragement. My high school’s yearbook, newspaper and literary magazine staffs were dominated by girls. Most of the editors were girls. A city literary magazine staff I’d been on only had one boy.

When making sweeping generalizations and perpetuating stereotypes, people tend to label writing and reading as “feminine” and math and science as “masculine.” (Just last week, some guy I met, an engineering major, in a hostel said his sister was “into the easy, girly subjects — you know, like journalism.” He apologized after I informed him that I was in journalism, which could be quite stressful and difficult and wasn’t “easy” or “girly.”)

Even when I came to college — to one of the world’s top journalism schools — I was surrounded by women. As a journalism ambassador, I hear on a near-weekly basis that the majority of our students are female. The Columbia Missourian, where I work, has a fairly proportionate number of male and female student and faculty editors. The Maneater, the independent student newspaper where I used to work, also had a fairly proportionate editorial board in terms of gender. It seemed to be the same for other campus and university-affiliated media outlets.

So, my freshman year, when I began reading about how the newsroom, particularly its leadership, is essentially still a boys’ club, I was shocked. (As one New York Times staffer said, “It’s nice to pretend that we’re past gender, but we’re not.”)

There are lots of mixed accounts about Abramson’s leadership, and with the vague answers owner Arthur Sulzburger is giving, it seems we might never know exactly why she was fired. But two things are certain: Abramson was paid less than her male predecessors and has been recognized to have qualities that have negative connotations for female leaders.

I particularly like how this excerpt from a Medium piece about Jill Abramson sums up her attitude: “Your power does not come from luck. Your power comes from you, and what you invest in it every day, in the work and the sweat and the giving a damn. That is what you carry around with you, even as you walk out of your fancy top job for the last time. That is what you carry into the next thing, and there will be a next thing, because you are good and because that’s what you do. That is your capital.”

I believe that. As a young woman, I feel like I’ve experienced initial, subtle sexism and ageism, as if I’m immediately judged to be a certain way because I’m still in school, have more estrogen than testosterone, and wear skirts and sundresses to work. But I just do what I always do — work hard and strive to continually learn and improve — and those feelings have gone away.

I want to have a successful career as a newsroom leader. I also eventually want to get married and have a family. I’m not saying achieving both will be easy — and as with anything, sacrifices will be inevitable — but I know I can make both happen. It’s not about luck; it’s about your attitude and hard work.

Hopefully, the rest of the world will realize that, too. Especially you, high school counselor.

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