Leaned In, Pushed Out: Jill Abramson’s Firing Should Make Us Reconsider Sandberg’s Philosophy

The central argument in Lean In is that one can strategize their way through the patterns of structural sexism. But Abramson’s firing provides a powerful case study for the fact that we cannot win a game we are rigged to lose.

Jill Abramson WikiMedia Commons

A flurry of opinion-making has followed the tumultuous firing of former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Abramson had been the subject of intense speculation and gossip about her newsroom leadership style, variously described as “brusque,” “divisive,” and, now most infamously, “pushy”—in part because, it has been reported, she was forthright in investigating the fact that she was being paid markedly less than male peers for doing the same demanding work. The manner of her firing was no less alarming. Despite a long career at the Times and a stellar tenure as executive editor, she has been fully cut out of the newspaper, dropped from the masthead immediately and given an ignominious sendoff in the form of a newsroom announcement at which she was not present—all a marked contrast to the feting of Howell Raines when he was celebrated and honored, even as he was being let go for presiding over the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.

At long last, then, can we declare the central philosophy behind Lean In dead?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s hugely popular book, and the “movement” that bears its name, have been struck by tidal waves of criticismparticularly from feminists and leftists—who accuse her feminist self-help opus aimed at career women of being irresponsible, credulous about capitalism/neoliberalism, ignorant of women of color and LGBTQ people, or just sociologically inapt. The criticism from many corners of feminism raised serious, legitimate questions about the value of Lean In’s advice to women, such as this tidbit she relays from her current boss at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg:

One of the things [Zuckerberg] told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. … Mark was right.

One certainly doubts that Jill Abramson pleased everyone, but her firing raises the question of whether this advice represents an ideal strategy for women.

To be fair to Sandberg, her actual book is somewhat more nuanced than the popular conception of “leaning in” as an idea. She demonstrates her fluency with social science literature, explaining the often intractable double binds faced by women in the professions and showing how assertive women are often condemned for the trait even as their workplaces all but demand it—much like the fate that befell Abramson.

Yet Sandberg has no one but herself to blame for that nuance getting lost in the shuffle; her own elevator speeches in her battery of press interviews and public appearances for Lean In emphasize the idea that women should be better advocates for ourselves, lean in to the boys’ club, and be more demanding. She talks up the hyper-individualist empowerment angle that is the book’s raison d’etre and downplays the socio-structural forces she describes in the book’s earlier chapters.

“Taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves, and asking for promotions (with smiles on our faces, of course) are all important elements of managing a career,” she writes, illustrating one of the major problems many feminists had with the book. She argues that women need to find a perilously narrow equilibrium between being nice and being assertive, ditching her own discussion of double-binds and failing to complete the gesture of her own attempts at nuance. We must smile more, she says, and do everything we can to avoid appearing selfish: frame our bids for promotion as good for the workplace community and avoid appearing pushy or threatening, while still enthusiastically seizing the day. “Do not wait for power to be offered,” she says, while suggesting that one grab it as nicely as possible—as if the workplaces she describes lend themselves to such gentility.

One is left wondering: Would Sandberg blame Abramson for her firing? Would she say that Abramson’s needful investigations of her pay gap were too threatening to her male colleagues, or that Abramson’s storied “brusqueness” was evidence that she failed to wear that all-important smile often enough?

And if Sandberg would not blame Abramson for her sacking (as one certainly hopes she has the decency to avoid doing), then what does that say about the quality and applicability of the whole Lean In argument?

The vagaries of sexism never made sense; there is no truly rational prejudice. The contempt of women was always delimited by moving goalposts and Dali-esque melting, bending boundaries. Sandberg’s argument is that one can strategize their way through the patterns of structural sexism, but Abramson’s firing provides a powerful empirical case study that validates the arguments made from without by feminist scholars and activists: We cannot win a game we are rigged to lose.

Abramson was, in many ways, a Sandbergian paragon: a mighty woman, talented and experienced, with every advantage but her gender. She was, by many accounts, tough, unapologetic, leaned in without asking, all while trailblazing at major newspapers. She was the latter day counterpart of A.M. Rosenthal or Arthur Ochs Sulzburger Sr.—neither of whom were known for their cuddliness but remain praised for doing their jobs well.

Yet even she could not defeat the Escher-esque labyrinth of misogyny that still prevails in the nation’s skyscrapers. At least not without an embarrassingly public fight that reminds us why social movements still retain tremendous value. If this is so, what good is “leaning in” for the rest of us?

Banning “Bossy”

There has been extensive discussion within feminism, to be sure, about salvaging the merits of Lean In, as well as vital critique of how we seem to reserve a special fire for women we disagree with. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the performative activist outrage around Lean In would not have occurred had Sandberg been a man, and that it ironically holds her to impossible standards because of her gender. If you can’t be perfect, some critics seemed to say, keep quiet.

This remains a valid concern. Let me be clear: I do not wish to start another bacchanalia of criticism of Sandberg as a person with this article. My concern is to illustrate how the summary version of Lean In‘s philosophy—which has come to dominate a national conversation about women in the workforce—leaves us with few tools for grappling with the far more insidious and archly irrational forces behind Abramson’s firing.

The activism spearheaded by Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation typifies the inadequacy of these tools. The “Ban Bossy” campaign, for instance, borders on self-parody, taking the germ of an important social insight—that language and child-rearing practices winnow the possibilities that girls can imagine for themselves—and turning it into a movement that gets at oppressive behaviors from entirely the wrong way around.

To return to Abramson, the issue was not that she was called any permutation of “bossy” but rather that such a belief is the death-knell of a woman’s career. The word itself is less the problem than the suite of ideas it transmits, as well as how the social practices inscribe its meaning in a woman’s paycheck or résumé. A word like that means nothing unless it does something. But the “Ban Bossy” campaign gets at none of this because its marketing depends on the punchy alliteration of its title.

The website can seem inspiring: The girls and young women who participated should be commended for their civic mindedness and encouraged to—in Beyonce’s memorable words for the campaign—“be the boss.” But this campaign alone will not be the solution, and it exemplifies the impoverishment of Lean In. Simply put, this would not have saved Abramson’s job.

As Soraya Chemaly puts it, “It sure feels like, while we parse whether or not to #BanBossy or embrace #GirlBoss, a whole lot of white men with power are having a chuckle and a smoke in a back room.”

Gendered slurs like “bitch,” “cunt,” and “whore” can be entirely excised from the vocabulary of the worst offenders in the professions, but that may not help their treatment of the women who work for or with them. They may never deign to call a woman employee a “cunt,” but they still treat her as if the constellation of implications that word connotes are true about her—that she is an angry, wicked, shrill girl acting above her station who needs to be put in her place. You can do all of that without the word. Indeed, it can be argued that so much “sensitivity training” nowadays teaches people to do just that: Be bigoted, but with more prosaic language.

Changing the Terms of the Game

Abramson’s tenure at the Times was characterized by success—both on the purely business side of things, and in the quality of the paper’s journalism, from eight Pulitzers to the technological innovation of “Snow Fall.” She did her job, and one that entails inevitable conflict.

It is instructive to compare her to another Times editor who has been the subject of gossip in the wider press: opinion page editor Andrew Rosenthal. He too found himself on the wrong side of knives shaped like anonymous comments, but his position—and by extension, the positions of the (in)famous Times opinion columnists in his stable—is far more secure than the lifeboat political cartoon in this New York Observer piece seems to suggest. But even if he does get fired, one suspects that there will be generous severance packages and going away parties aplenty involved, perhaps even a charming retrospective on the op-ed page itself.

This disparity in social practice is why Lean In, as career advice, is ultimately built on wishes and fictions. The fjords of minefields we navigate in professional life are hewn into their senseless abstraction by social forces that are rigged against us. Prejudice means that people fail to be rewarded in spite of their “hard work,” not because we are too afraid to do the hard work.

Abramson’s firing is a wake-up call to all of us: We can’t lean our way into a solution to women’s problems in the workforce. The terms of the game need to be changed root and branch, and we ought to refuse to play by the rules we have been given. Sandberg is not wrong when she suggests that the self-doubt we are all socialized with acts as webbing that holds us back from our potential, but cutting that lattice is not enough by itself; there are fundamental questions to be asked about what we can do with our newfound self-confidence.

I myself am riven by doubt, impostor syndrome, depression, and anxiety about my abilities on an almost daily basis. I am intimately acquainted with the struggles of being a woman who must find an assertiveness that society also punishes her for. Truth be told, when I first read Lean In, Sandberg’s personal reflections on her own struggles with impostor syndrome resonated powerfully with me. But it was not that long after that I realized simply girding my self-esteem was not going to be enough to allow me to spread my wings. I had to be the sociologist I was training myself to be—I had to be skeptical and critical of the social world I was confronted with, and I had to ask how it could be changed.

Sandberg’s book ends on a resoundingly optimistic note, arguing that she has faith that women “at the top” will lift other women up as well, and so change the cultures of their workplaces.

Jill Abramson seemed to be doing just that in promoting women at the New York Times, inspiring and shepherding their aspirations—but what happens when the “woman at the top” gets shoved over a glass cliff?

Answering that question takes us far beyond the comfortably neoliberal limits of Lean In’s self-help and into far more challenging, but ultimately more transformative, territory that sees all workplaces restructured around an emancipatory ethic.

That’d be worth leaning into, for sure.