Only Shades of Grey at the New York Times

Last week, the first female Executive Editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, was fired.  It was not an elegant dismissal.  Immediately rumors began to swirl about Ms. Abramson's supposed discovery that her compensation was lower than her predecessor's. Then the twitterati batted about reported charges that she was "brusque", abrasive, and lacking in leadership effectiveness.  This raised the double standard under which women labor, criticized for lacking necessary ambition and grit, then smacked down for being too masculine when they display those very same qualities.  The NYT's publisher, Arthur Sulzlberger Jr., issued a public statement asserting that his firing of Ms. Abramson was unrelated to any issue of gender, a topic frequently addressed within the pages of The Grey Lady, as the paper is commonly known.  What are we to make of this?  Mary Troy Johnston, a distinguished professor of political science, is the author of this open letter to Mr. Sulzberger, which I'm proud to feature on my blog:

Dear Arthur,

No more greyness.  If you are going to address the issue of pay in the firing of Jill Abramson, it is important that you provide the essential details to show that she was paid equally throughout her career at your paper.  As an avid reader of the NYT, one who respects the authority of the paper and a woman professor who struggled throughout her career for equal pay, I consider the issue of whether Jill received equal pay to be a test of the integrity of the Times' reputation and reliability of message.

The facts that you presented below to your staff are inadequate to settle this defining issue.  According to you,

 It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors. Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors. In fact, in 2013, her last full year in the role, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010. It was also higher than his total compensation in any previous year.

 The following questions still remained to be answered.

1)  When you state her pay was comparable, do you mean that it was equal to the previous executive editor?  From a political scientist, I tell you that comparability is not the same thing as equality.

2)  You mention 2013 as being a year in which Jill's pay exceeded that of the last year's pay of the previous editor.  A couple of questions come to mind.  Did the pay she received throughout her years as executive editor at the NYT equal that of Bill Keller throughout his tenure?  It is quite possible (and one might suspect) that when she approached you about unequal pay, she received a jump in pay for 2013 to compensate for being underpaid in previous years.  It is also possible that a single year's increase in pay was an installment to be continued in future years to fulfill the compensation.  It has also been suggested that her compensation package included stock options (perhaps tied to bonus) which could have been responsible for increasing her compensation beyond that of Bill Keller.  If so, more kudos to Jill for contributing to stock value increase, although the equity part of total compensation is not stable.

3)  The glaring part of the saga is that 2013 was a banner year for Jill financially, it seems, based on an equally banner job performance by objective criteria, criteria you yourself contracted with her.  How can it be that after having been so handsomely rewarded in 2013, she met with such an ugly dismissal (ostensibly for her performance) in less than half a year?

4)  Your statement is also incomplete because it neglects to mention how Jill was paid in her other positions at the NYT.  Has she been paid less than her male peers since she joined the NYT in 1997?  Reports have widely ciruclated that she was underpaid (in relation to male peers) in the positions of Washington Bureau Chief and managing editor which together she occupied for almost a decade (2000-2010).  We know that salary is not the only hit women take when they are underpaid.  They also find their pensions are underfunded compared to their male counterparts.

Please spare us the broad details of one year's pay for Jill Abramson and provide us with the details of whether she was paid equally throughout her stellar career that began in 1997 at the NYT.  Please also spare us negative descriptions and insinuations about her personality which might have entered into her firing.  All we are interested in is whether she was paid what the guys were paid.

If indeed, you had to adjust her salary after she complained to you about pay inequality (in all probability, multiple times) and she was fired the year after, you are unable to maintain that salary had no consideration in her firing.  It is also possible that salary issues figured "unconsciously" in your decision to fire her.  In my field of political science, we are well aware that informal structures exist that influence the behavior of actors.

If the culture of the NYT is such that informal structures exist that provide various barriers to the advancement of women, then it is important that you flesh out that adverse culture. The only way the truth can be known is for you in all transparency to show us either that Jill was paid equally starting from year one at the NYT, or, if that was not the case, let your readers know how you are going to address a workplace culture that impedes women in their career.

The integrity of the New York Times depends on it.  The Grey Lady has gone too grey on the question of Jill Abramson's compensation.

Yours sincerely,


Mary Troy Johnston, Ph.D.

Professor of Political Science

New Orleans, Louisiana



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