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Females Leaders Are Mercurial

The Careerist

May 27, 2014

Jill_Abramson_2012Note: The following post appeared on The Careerist blog on May 15. The blog has moved to a new location—click here to see all the posts you've missed.

Maybe we're touchy. But we tend to get our guards up whenever one of our sisters gets axed from a prominent leadership role. This week, we are on red alert.

This has been an extraordinarily bleak week for women in high profile positions in the media and the arts (we won't even go into female political figures).

Among those whose heads went on the chopping block: Jill Abramson (right), the first female executive editor of The New York Times (Early in her career, Abramson worked at The American Lawyer as a reporter for about 10 years); Natalie Nougayrède, the first female editor in chief of Le Monde, France's leading paper; and Anne Baldassari, the president of Paris's Musée Picasso, which holds the world's largest collection of Picassos.

What's striking is that job performance was not cited as the reason for the firings. Instead, it was management style. Yes, you guessed it, all three women were accused of being abrasive, unpredictable and poisonous for morale. In other words, they weren't lovable.

Of course, no one—not even the biggest male chauvanists—would use sexist adjectives like "angry," "bitchy," "emotional" or "hysterical" to label female managers. Still, it's hard not to think of those terms when you read about the criticism levied against these women.

Consider how the Times describes how Abramson's boss Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper's publisher and the chairman, felt about her:

Ms. Abramson, 60, had been in the job only since September 2011. But people in the company briefed on the situation described serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who was concerned about complaints from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial.

Nougayrède, who was at helm of Le Monde for only 14 months, got similar criticism. The Times reports that she "had been criticized by her staff for a top-down management style and an inability to build consensus." The Independent says that staff members accused Nougayrède of being  “authoritarian” and “Putin-like.” According to the Times, she angered staffers by pushing the paper's digital operations and transferring 50 staffers from print to the digital side. (Hell hath no fury like that of a die-hard print journalist.)

In firing Baldassari, France's cultural ministry issued a "scathing statement" that accused the Picasso expert of creating a "gravely deteriorating work environment," according to the Times. Moreover, some of her staff members described her management style as "marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication."

Not to be cynical, but since when did the powers-that-be care so much about workers' hurt feelings? Men are often dictatorial, arrogant and brusque—but somehow that's accepted (and respected) as being traits of a strong leader.

And isn't it interesting that the word "mercurial" was used to describe both Abramson and Baldasarri's management styles? I suppose we should be grateful that "mercurial" sounds more gender neutral than "hysterical" or "hormonal."

Of course, we don't know the inside story behind these firings (The New Yorker says that Abramson made a stink with her boss when she found out that she got paid less than men who had held her same position, an allegation that Sulzburger refuted in a note to his staff)). So I'm not jumping on any conspiracy bandwagons.

That said, it's hard to ignore three high-flying women getting knocked off their perches at about the same time. It must have been a long climb for them to ascend to those heights. But then, presto, they are (and we are) out of the game.

Really, how much bad news can a girl take?


E-mail: vchen@alm.com     Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist


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Women leaders are sometimes misunderstood.

At this point all explanations are speculative, but it may be that having learned to be even more macho than the men in order to succeed in a male dominated world, these women arrived at the top just as the hyper macho style of management had become obsolete and a less macho management style was required.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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