When Jill Abramson, 60,walked into her Tribeca apartment, the first thing she showed me was a black T-shirt. Storyhunter was printed across the front, and she was fresh from speaking with its two-year-old team. Majorly impressed by the insurance it helps provide freelance journalists who report in high-risk areas, she’s disappointed she doesn’t have time to join its board right now. But with former students (she taught at Yale for five years) who’ve found their ways to storytelling in places like Iraq, the cause is an important one to Abramson.
“When I got there,” she says, “I was standing in a room with nine men.” Looking around, only one question came to mind:
“Where are all the girls?”
It’s the focus of many conversations and a question that’ll be raised until the strides of women in business match the gaits of their male counterparts. Women business owners are making gains in startups — launching them at a rate 1.5-times the national average — but they still contribute less than 4% of all public and private business revenues — about the same share as in 1997.
The story doesn’t change in big business, either. Top jobs are male-dominated — only 15% of large-company executive positions are filled by women, according to Catalyst. And when those men are “looking to promote people and therefore pay them the richest pay, they are looking to see themselves in the younger people moving up,” Abramson says. “And they tend to overlook women.”
But for that to change, it would take a wholesale shakeup of our basic organizations, a retool of success benchmarks that typically skew male and a complete rebake of our rewards systems for advancement. “Women are excellent at collaborative leadership and work, and yet the reward is often for more of an overt leader,” says Abramson, who until mid-May was executive editor of The New York Times.
Glimpse back to a 1970s college town. It’s a decade after second-wave feminism kicked off and since the Equal Pay Act became law. Abramson was stepping onto Harvard Yard with about 70 other young women — the first class to invade the Ivy League’s “male bastion.”
null “Not all of the male students were so happy to have women living there.” Chalk it up to the first of many barriers she’s broken along the way.
Things can change, and it’s time for the disproportionate struggles of women in business to bow out, too. Taking that initial step could go a long way for self-advancement, but at a time when only 38% of professional women think they’ll rise to a senior leadership position, how can we expect the confidence to translate from campus to career?
For Abramson, it meant working with Sandra Burton, then Time magazine’s Boston bureau chief who’d worked her way up from a secretary role.
“I thought, ‘The workplace is wonderful. It’s full of these fabulous women,’” says Abramson. “And, of course, the punchline to the story is, she was my first boss. I never worked for another woman again in my whole career.” She went on to report for The American Lawyer, head the Legal Times, investigate at The Wall Street Journal and hold multiple “first-woman” posts within The New York Times.
Some fields are full with senior women in their ranks, but in traditionally male-dominated domains — think engineering and tech — it could be hard for young women to find their Sandra Burton. They aren’t only women, though, who can offer the kind of backing that’ll springboard a career from entrance to excellence. What’s important is looking for the supportive environment. Abramson found it among Steve Brill (The American Lawyer), Al Hunt (WSJ) and others, feeling encouraged with their confidence in her.
“I think if you look up to any manager, especially if it’s a male manager who you think is very excellent in the field, trying to develop a mentoring relationship is a good idea,” Abramson says. “And I think younger women shouldn’t be reticent about trying to do that.”
But what of the women who find barriers in a startup, C-suite or fresh-from-college experience where a culture of equal merit between men and women isn’t the norm? It begs the question if it’s even an environment where she could achieve at her capable level and, if so, whether it’s worth the potential demise of her “authentic self.”
“I don’t really always think the best policy is to grin and bear it,” Abramson argues. null … I’m not saying there aren’t risks inherent in that. And some people might say, ‘Look at Jill Abramson. She had the best job in journalism, and she got fired for being true to herself.’ But I feel very much at peace with my career and the way I did my job, and I have no regrets.”
In navigating the challenges of education, initial support and breaking through some male-dominant industries, Abramson’s building blocks can help along the way:
Take time to luxuriate in college
“Luxuriate in the great Russian novels or philosophy or study ancient Greek for the sake of expanding your intellectual horizons. Just spend four years focused on the love of learning…If you spend all four years focused on pre-professional preparation only, I think you miss out on a part of the reason college exists in our society.”
Push for policy
“There’s so little societal support for working mothers, and compared to many European countries and countries elsewhere around the world, the United States is kind of shockingly retro in terms of policy.”
“Trying to contribute to creating a better world through your work, and either mode (startup or C-suite) can conform to that. Either going to work at a big law firm and doing some pro-bono work that comes in…can be tremendously fulfilling, and starting a new business and a new space and addressing an actual need and want for people and customers is a great thing, too.”
Don’t “twist yourself up in knots, trying to act in a certain way or have a certain style that you think is the ticket to success…You can be defeated by obstacles like getting fired, or you can look inside yourself and say, ‘It’s an opportunity to show what you’re made of.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
But, struggles in advancement may still linger. When young women are confronted with a baseline choice — happiness or climbing an ill-fitting ladder — there’s a basic reality they face:
“You have to look inside of yourself and answer honestly the question about the work that you do and the field you’re in,” Abramson says. “Whether you love it, whether the passion is still there. And if it’s not, to have the courage to try something else.”
She thinks back on her career and where it’s still taking her. Now, with more time to report stories she hadn’t the time for before, like travel writing for Departures; to speak at more conferences, like Harvard’s upcoming Intercollegiate Business Convention; and to see Derek Jeter’s last game at Fenway Park.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the career of Ben Bradlee, who was such a fantastic editor (of the Washington Post),” she says. “And he always asks me the same question when I would see him, which is: ‘Are you having fun?’ And I just think having fun in your life and especially at work is so important, and no one except for Ben ever asked me that…null