The Hard Case of Needing to Be a Soft Woman

 Former NYT executive editor Jill Abramson on stage at SXSW in 2012

Like everyone in the media world I’m following news of Jill Abramson getting fired last week from The New York Times, and as the news and opinion pieces continue to roll in, I am getting more and more depressed. To wit:

A young female staffer at the Times told Amanda Hess of Slate that “we don’t have a great culture of female solidarity at the Times,” while another said “there’s still very much an Old Boys’ Club atmosphere here.” Both anecdotes indicate that an insupportable culture may be partly responsible for Abramson’s controversial downfall. (From Jill Abramson and The Confidence Code: A Case Study by Caroline Fairchild in Fortune)

As prominent tech journalist Kara Swisher aptly summarizes, a theme in the coverage of this story is how “different behavioral standards are applied to men and women” and “how strongly confident women get turned into waspish shrews, while men become commanding figures of authority. That’s the cliché, of course, but it does not make it any less true.”

Swisher also points out the societal pressure on women to “tamp down their confidence or package it in a more attractive way.” I have definitely felt this pressure — the need to soften my tone. Keep in mind, I’m someone whom a stranger called “spritely” on the street the other day, and past employers have commented that I’m like “a ray of sunshine”; my enthusiasm is part of what sets me apart. But — and — I am also a direct communicator who has little tolerance for bullshit. If you submit a blog post and I think it’s awful and we shouldn’t publish it, I say — not to you, but to my fellow editors — “this is awful, and we shouldn’t publish it” (to you, I’ll write a considerate and professional note explaining why it doesn’t meet our criteria for publication). Well, apparently such straight talk gets some people’s hackles up, and makes me seem incendiary, or (a direct quote) “dramatic.” I am not independently wealthy, so when I get that feedback, I have to check myself. 

Being asked to “tone it down” is hardly evidence of sexism run amock — for one thing, different organizations have different cultures, and it could be that in the example I share above, my personality just isn’t a great fit for the company in question. Feminism is not armor against personal responsibility; like all of us, I am imperfect and make mistakes and am a better fit for some jobs than others. All of that is true. But the fact that I might not get the same feedback if I were a man creates a shadow of doubt that is a real cross to bear.

As Swisher and so many other female journalists are chronicling right now, there is a particular kind of criticism that strong women receive that seems to be more about people’s discomfort with unapologetically confident women than it does about the women themselves.

Incidentally, I’d argue that there’s a larger issue here — larger even than sexism — and that is the oppressive weight of feeling like you need to act like someone other than yourself when you go to work each day. Sure, we all need to adapt in order to work together and get along. But I would so much rather find a client who loves my style and channel all my energy into doing kick-ass work for that person than expend energy trying to pretend I’m something I’m not.  And I’m sure not doing my best when I’m self-conscious about coming on “too strong.”

I’m glad that this issue is getting so much attention, and it’s inspiring to see women writing pieces like Swisher’s and this one by Rachel Sklar — but what will it take to move beyond conversation and really create change? How can we dismantle the power of the “pushy” stereotype in order to help more women achieve and thrive in positions of power?

I have a two-year-old daughter. By the time she’s part of the working world, I hope she can trust that any negative feedback she gets from her employer is the same feedback that employer would give a man in the same position. I’m ready to do what it takes to create that world for her. Even if it means I need to be pushy.

Postscript: Earlier in this piece, I felt the need to reassure you that I am seen as spritely, sunshiney and enthusiastic, to avoid having you think I am “just” a direct communicator who gets asked on occasion to soften her tone. I noticed this instinct but decided not to edit that section out because I think it’s a perfect example of how I and so many other women feel ashamed of being criticized. I was raised to be a good girl. Good girls don’t “get in trouble” for ruffling feathers. Maybe we all need to be less afraid of getting into trouble. I’m self-confident, sure, but I also want you to like me. How do I let go of that?? …Because THAT might be the real key to change.

Photo above by Anna Hanks on Flickr


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2 thoughts on “The Hard Case of Needing to Be a Soft Woman

  1. My mom was ahead of her time in ways I can really only appreciate now with the perspective of a middle-aged woman.My tough talking, opinionated, tomboy of a mother frankly did not care if you didn't like what she said or did. She would wear a T-shirt and tennis shoes into a fancy restaurant and confidently declare "My money's just as green as if I put on a dress."She also loved a bumper sticker that said, "You call me a bitch like it's a bad thing." She and her two sisters had no problem being abrasive, pushy, loud … all the things that are commonly associated with a strong man but not OK in women. As a type A perfectionist, I definitely absorbed the message that sometimes getting to a goal means standing up for myself and even ruffling feathers. But I have also learned that whether it comes from a man or a woman, paying attention to tone is helpful. You don't have to be everyone's best friend, but whether it's with coworkers, spouses or children, there can be multiple ways to communicate the same point. You can be a confident, strong leader without being unduly abrasive.I would rather see men who are bullies in the workplace bring it down a notch to be more considerate than to have women adopt their combative ways to get ahead.

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  2. Colleen: Your mom sounds like a CHARACTER! You're right that "whether it's with coworkers, spouses or children, there can be multiple ways to communicate the same point. You can be a confident, strong leader without being unduly abrasive." This makes me wonder… part of the conversation about women being held to a different standard needs to include clarifying exactly what the mutual standard should be. I'd rather shift the culture to normalize and prize a direct yet kind communication style than encourage the culture to support women being as brusque as men get away with being.

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