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The New York Times' Jill Abramson’s gender is not the problem

The Jill Abramson case sheds light on a different problem than the national media has picked up on: Wage inequality not between genders, but among industries.
HAMBURG — First came Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Next, the “ban bossy” movement. Now, on the heels of the sudden dismissal of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson last week, several sources were quick to jump on gender disparity as the reason for the change.

The suggestion that a disparity in pay played a role in her departure arose on May 14, when Ken Auletta of The New Yorker posted an item online.

“Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs,’’ Auletta wrote. He reported that one close associate of Abramson’s said she confronted management about this, “and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”

Bossy. Pushy. Even catty. The words are often used in an irrefutably gendered context, but does that mean only women are ever chastised for having a heavy managing hand?

Times publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Sulzberger doesn’t think so. He wrote that, “Perhaps the saddest outcome of my decision to replace Jill Abramson as executive editor of The New York Times is that it has been cast by many as an example of the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. Rather than accepting that this was a situation involving a specific individual who, as we all do, has strengths and weaknesses, a shallow and factually incorrect storyline has emerged. Fueling this have been persistent but incorrect reports that Jill’s compensation package was not comparable with her predecessor’s.”

He noted that her pay and compensation package was not only incomparable to Keller’s because of their differing tenures and pay scales, but that Abramson was actually making 10 percent more than Keller, before she packed up her desk at the Times.

But there’s a larger conversation to be had here, that the gender narrative has washed over on the national stage.

Abramson may have made more than Keller, she may not. That’s between the former editors and their accountants. But line up an average editor (read: manager, in any other field) against similar-level managers in other industries, and journalism is behind the curve, gender aside.

This fact is not news to anyone watching the AP RSS feed. Journalists don’t enter the field for the money, and most don’t expect to make much of it, regardless of their career trajectories. But the disparity is wide and growing, according to recent reports.

The American Journalism Review posted a story in the beginning of May that said the purchasing power of a typical reporter’s pay has trended even lower over the past decade, as wage growth for reporters nationwide has failed to keep pace with either inflation or overall wages in the United States, according to data from the federal government.

The mean salary for reporters and correspondents rose from $40,090 in May 2003 to $44,360 in May 2013, an increase of 10.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics. It should be noted that mean data can be misleading, depending on the standard of living and associated pay scales in any given region; the New York metropolitan area and Washington D.C. are typically higher. But for the purpose of argument, those numbers will stand.

During the same 10-year period, the mean salary for all occupations rose considerably more – 28 percent, from $36,210 in 2003 to $46,440 in 2013, BLS data shows.

Reporters, on average, earned $2,080 less than the national average last May, the most recent month for which data is available.

During the same decade, inflation took a big bite out of the purchasing power of the typical reporter’s paycheck. From 2003-2013, the Consumer Price Index, a common measure of inflation, grew 26.6 percent, more than double the growth rate for reporters’ pay.

In the newspaper industry, pressure on wages has been particularly acute, because of widespread downsizing as advertising revenue got clobbered by the recession and Internet competition. Newspaper advertisement revenue is down 60 percent over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

So what does this all mean, in the context of Abramson’s firing? Maybe taking a good, hard look at her finances may not prove that her pay was unequal on a gender scale, but within the context of what we can all expect to make annually.

Wage inequality between industries is not a new issue. It is also not unexpected; no one goes to college expecting to make their parents’ wage right out of the gate. But Americans should be able to expect a living wage, no matter what their chosen field.

The cost of living for an average reporter is no lower than that of the average banker, teacher or Wal-Mart checkout clerk, so why is the pay so variant?

Maybe we need to stop leaping to gender when we’re raring for a national conversation and turn toward topics that affect all of us, like the disparity between industries, when it comes to what we use to pay the bills. Let’s talk about wages, not just minimum wages, but all wages, for all industries.

Americans need to remember that, even if paying for the news has become more of the exception than the rule, thanks to the proliferation of citizen journalism on the Internet, those who are working in real, responsible newsrooms still have to pay the bills.

And that’s a conversation worth parrying over, Mr. Suzberger, Mr. Auletta. Maybe we can get another snappy front page shot for that.

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