The Week in Ethics: Abramson, Mayer and the Road Ahead for Women Leaders

Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, whose tenure in her first 18-months has yielded four Pulitzer Prizes. is the subject of a hit-and-run POLITICO piece this week quoting anonymous journalists at the paper criticizing her brusque, dismissive, non-empathetic style, labeling her “very, very unpopular.”

It is difficult to imagine a reporter having access to or using such anecdotal anonymous information about male leaders in other industries.

Much has been said in recent weeks about a double standard in judging men and women leaders. For example, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly was treated very differently in the media than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when both leaders ended their company’s telecommuting policies. Mayer’s decision, which came first, received national media coverage and criticism. However, inherent in the double standard is also an evolving expectation of what it expected of women leaders in turbulent times.

Over centuries, “leader” solidified  as a male noun. Labels of first female engineer at Google (Mayer), first female executive editor or just female CEO mean something in the lexicon of moving toward gender parity, but can rankle those who want to be judged by their results not gender.

Male leaders have had centuries to toughen to the inevitable criticism inherent in the accountability of leadership. Women leaders, in adjusting to the glare of attention now as part of a small group face the double-edged sword of presumed expectations about the kind of leaders they are or should be.

Research feeds the expectation that women are expected to have more developed emotional intelligence (EQ) than men. EQ’s self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills– the so-called softer skills — are counted as crucial leadership skills and ones where women are considered to have an edge.

However, Abramson and Mayer emerged from the cultures that raised them — news organizations and engineering/technology — where outperforming, excelling, and high reliance on IQ and Systems Intelligence have high priority. Both assumed leadership in troubled organizations where they are required to drive change as their companies deal with economic, relevance, and technology challenges.

There is an expectation that women won’t make the same EQ blunders many men have. Mayer, who juggled her new parent status by building an office nursery, didn’t factor into Yahoo’s strategy and communication what the impact might be for employees who were also parents when she ended telecommuting; media had a field day with anonymous employee reactions.

Given the last several years of ongoing cuts in newsrooms, journalists still standing — perhaps even more especially those at the venerable New York Times — may feel demoralized. Not to operate with a heightened awareness of one’s impact on others invites criticism. One of the anonymous New York Times’ employees complained about Abramson: “There are days when she acts like she just doesn’t care.”

Sandberg photo.pdf Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reinforces in Lean In (her book about empowering the next generation of women leaders) that  “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women.” She cites a Harvard Business School case study of an entrepreneur who got negative reactions when the name Howard was changed to Heidi. Qualities that weren’t an issue for Howard became “not the kind of person you would want to hire or work for” when the gender was Heidi.

Further proof of the challenges facing successful women is evident in the controversy over Sandberg’s book,  several women reviewers indicated her wealth and status made her out-of-touch with ordinary career women. Leadership books written by men of status and wealth haven’t received similar critiques.

We don’t have yet an objective way of appraising women leaders — both accomplishments and criticisms can lend themselves too quickly to hyperbole. As things sort themselves out, one of the safety nets is to pay attention to red flags and address them. Abramson has been tagged (fairly or unfairly) with having a style attributed to many male leaders who’ve not been called on it publicly.

Expecting more from women leaders is about our giving and asking for more from everyone involved in service of creating highly productive workplaces that build trust and engagement.

Leadership is an intentional act of development evolving imperfectly. The road ahead for women leaders is helping define what is possible for leadership to create, moving into a way of being that is every bit as important in our increasingly unpredictable world as the way of doing.

Gael O’Brien April 25, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine and a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.

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