Yesterday, when Arthur Sulzberger announced to the Times staff that he'd fired editor-in-chief Jill Abramson, he reportedly told the staff something like, "When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are." A lot of the women I know who have similar professional ambitions to mine are stuck on that phrase: "Just as men are."
In my experience, quite a large number of people are prepared to admit that sexism exists, but only in the abstract. They have seen the same statistics, I guess, which makes it hard to deny that in fact women are not generally treated "just as men are," as a group.
For example: Reports are that people did indeed feel Abramson had certain failings as a manager. Reports are also that she did not get along very well with the man who had given her the job. Men who have such things said about them may also face firing, yes. But none of these things necessarily obviate that Abramson's gender played a role. And there is this persistent problem of the pay gap, which everyone seems to admit existed, even the Times itself, though it disputes the size.
And yet people are trying to pretend we can rule out the gender angle.
Have a look, for example, at what the New York Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has recently posted about this idea that Abramson might have been expelled from the castle because she was too abrasive in some way:
As an observer, I don't think this decision had much to do with Ms. Abramson being "pushy," which is gender-related code for strong and opinionated. It was more that she was undiplomatic and less than judicious in some management and personnel decisions. That matters when you're supervising 1,250 people in a business being forced to reinvent itself.
Shifting the word used to describe Abramson from "pushy" to "undiplomatic" is making a distinction without a relevant difference. The problem with women being called "pushy" is not that that particular word is used. The problem is that it is not always clear that a lack of diplomacy is considered a failing in a male manager, particularly one as high-flying as the editor-in-chief of the New York Times.
It's like people think that if sexism is not the only explanation, it can't be any part of it.
I am not naive. I know that no amount of explaining that women's voices are typically characterized as shrill and grating, or that women are perceived as pushy where men are perceived as bold, will do. Mary Beard, the Oxford classicist, recently traced the attitudes back to antiquity in the London Review of Books, but I've a notion the nasty comments directed at her haven't changed much.
After all, as I said, everyone seems to agree that sexism is bad. It's just always happening somewhere else, and the somewhere else tends not to be a specific place and time, happening to a specific woman. People often say they are just focusing on the "facts." But the "facts" never seem to include gender. If anything else at all is in the picture, there's no sexism. Which I suppose makes things tidier, if also demonstrably untrue.