Can women lead in a take-no-prisoners culture?

Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly dismissed after less than three years on the job.  The Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes under Ms. Abramson and she won praise for journalistic efforts both in print and on the web.  In spite of this, she was criticized for her management style.  She was accused of being brusque, harsh and pushy.

And Ms. Abramson isn’t the first woman to be “let go” from a top editorial job.

On the very same day Abramson’s firing was announced, Natalie Nougayrède, the first woman editor-in-chief of Le Monde, France’s most prominent newspaper, resigned after 14 months, saying that she felt she was being undermined by those who wished to “reduce drastically the prerogatives of the head of paper,” as she pushed the paper to be more fully into digital and to be more profitable.  Yet, if you believe her critics, she was being undermined because of her top-down management style and inability to build consensus.

Susan Glasser, former editor of the national news section of the Washington Post, lasted less than two years before she was removed from her post.  At the time Ms. Glasser was hired, Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. praised her strong vision for “…an idea of change and transformation at the paper that involves us embracing new ideas and ways of thinking about our journalism”During her tenure, the Post won a record six Pulitzers in one month. Yet, she was criticized for being difficult, hard to understand, and divisive.

These women achieved great results and were driving innovation and change. However, they were all labeled smart but difficult, unapproachable, and intimidating – traits that have also been associated with successful male editors. What does this say about the newsroom culture?  Can women lead in this kind of culture?

The firing of Ms. Abramson, the resignation of Ms. Nougayrède, and the removal of Ms. Glasser are wake-up calls that women leaders who demonstrate assertiveness and a confident mastery of their field are viewed as brash, pushy, bossy, overbearing.  Patronizing peers or bosses might call them unladylike or say that their behavior is “unbecoming.”

Research and experience point to the double standard we use to evaluate leaders.  Men have a broader range of accepted behaviors than women do.  Men can be viewed highly when they forcefully assert their point of view and their authority.  They are being strong, competent leaders.  Women who demonstrate these behaviors are not seen as strong competent leaders; they are seen as problems.

There’s no denying that there are environments, like a newsroom, often dominated by men, where the culture is competitive and results-driven, where leaders crack the whip and “take no prisoners.”

Unfortunately, gender bias in the newsroom environment probably isn’t going to disappear any time soon, so women leaders will have to learn to work around it.

Ms. Glasser explained it this way: “You can’t get to greatness by enabling mediocrity; in male leaders, this is called having high standards and it is praised. Places like the New York Times, Le Monde and the Washington Post are not given to elevating editors—of any gender—who would accept anything other than the highest of standards.  As in tough, demanding, challenging.  But there’s no doubt that many find this off-putting and threatening from a certain kind of woman. Like me.”

Research shows that if women hope to be successful taking primary leading roles in any organizational culture, they must learn to blunt their sharp elbows and temper their assertiveness. What this means in the newsroom culture, and others like it, is that women leaders have to be assertive, yes; driving, yes; challenging, yes; but to succeed they need to file smooth the hard edges associated with those stereotypical male leadership characteristics.