Women Don’t Fear Power. Power Fears Women.

Screen shot 2014-05-15 at 4.03.59 PMReading yesterday about the abrupt firing of Jill Abramson, along with the resignation of Le Monde’s Natalie Nougayrède, was like watching a ripple of misogyny move through the air in slow motion. Similar, in fact, to watching the slow, then fast, build to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s removal from office. There’s no way to examine these situations and ask, “Do women fear power and success?” Instead, the question is, “Why are powerful and successful women so feared?”

In their former positions, both Abramson and Nougayrède were notable firsts. Abramson was the first woman to head The New York Times as executive editor, and Nougayrède the first to be both editor-in-chief and director at French newspaper Le Monde. Both women, whose tenures have been prematurely cut short, are paying the price for our very gendered ideas about power and leadership.  Because they are women with power, all Abramson and Nougayrède had to do in the morning to be disruptive was get out of bed.

They are counter-cultural, by definition. Both are experienced, accomplished, powerful, strong-willed, assertive, decisive and display–likeable or not–leadership qualities. Both were in the isolated position that most women with authority find themselves in. Both were navigating the high pressures of their professional lives while simultaneously challenging everyone’s–their employees’, their employer’s, the media’s– embedded notions of gendered behavior: from their “brusque,” “pushy” and “aggressive” dispositions, speech patterns, body language, ambition, confidence and more. The active coping that women leaders do in their work is qualitatively different and, frankly, more onerous than their male peers, whom they are most frequently told they should simply emulate to get ahead.

So it was with no small amount of wry humor that I read a front page New York Times headline today, “Labs Are Told to Start Including a Neglected Variable: Females,” about how medical researchers have ignored women and expected them to benefit from what men do. I’d be willing to bet a small fortune that copy editors at the Times assiduously purged words like “brusque,” “pushy” and “bossy,” from their digital galleys in the wake of yesterday’s news, but no one paused to consider (or, maybe they did), the relevance of the fact that “female” is not actually a variable. Variables are adaptations to norms.

The headline illuminated not just an intractable problem at the Times, but a persistent and widespread truth: We keep expecting women to be content being seen as and understood as variations on men.

Women in leadership, the relatively scant few, learn to adapt to the double bind that necessitates them rejecting much of what they were taught to think and be as females. Most girls, even those with egalitarian-minded parents, learn to put others first, to defer to dominant male speech in the public sphere, to cede physical space to not be disruptive. These are not valued characteristics or behaviors in most competitive, male-dominated work places. Women who do transcend their gender socialization and exhibit confident authority are inevitably penalized. Lack of deference in a woman is so unattractive.

The fact remains that most girls learn early that their well-being and success are inextricably tied to being attractive and being nice. Horrible as it is to so many people to consider, “nice”–a whole spectrum of behavior–is how we girls and women navigate our lower status and adapt to having vicarious and male-mediated access to safety, resources and power. Women’s adaptive behavior, language, dress, use of physical space are not the traits of “femaleness” but “powerlessness.” It’s why women and minorities “struggle” with “executive presence.” Women who defy these norms have no place in our gender-framed cultural schema.

The New York Times magazine demonstrated this earlier this year when it proved incapable of even graphically envisioning women with authority. Their cover photos of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, both as disembodied heads adrift in a sea of chaos, were testaments to their complete and utter failure of imagination when it comes to women and leadership. The same is true across media, where powerful girls and women are most often portrayed as unnatural, supernatural beings like witches or vampires, mermaids or fairies. A close runner up, again–thank you, New York Times, for such singular examples–is that it is only possible to construct women in power in terms of “Where Mean Girls Rule.” Really, you cannot make this up.

It’s in our imagery and in our language. The words we associate with power are “male”–assertive, authoritative, decisive. Women are bitches, scolds, nagging, shrill, difficult, opinionated, bossy, cunts, ugly, aggressive, temperamental, pushy and more. Oh, did I leave out brusque? Sorry.

Children are socialized in binary, gendered ways. It’s why, despite 100 years of academic over-achievement, we still live in a world where men rule. Women don’t need to become more like men, a tactic that is easily used to undermine them every day. Power needs to become feminized, a strategy that the world would benefit from across the board. Here’s a quick fix: Let’s just call powerful women “men” and be done with this tiresome discrimination and rigid genderization. Calling women who lead “men” will trick our brains, saturated with denigrating and sexist stereotypes, the way mirrors trick amputees out of feeling phantom pain.  While we are at it, we can call men who nurture “mothers,” thereby eliminating the systemic and thoroughly gendered impediments to equality in the workplace. These were the issues that Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ public editor herself, identified earlier this week in a “Where Are the Women” Times article.

Some people think that our “problems with women,” power and status are an “historic remnant of gender discrimination.” We aren’t living with remnants, we’re wrapped, bound and immobilized like mummies.  The elimination of these two women from the paper-thin ranks of women in media leadership is a real loss, even though the hiring of Dean Baquet to replace Abramson is a notable and important landmark. (As New York Magazine put it in a headline begging for gender commentary, “Meet Dean Baquet, the NYT’s First Black Boss.”) Many believe Baquet was erroneously passed over by Abramson’s hiring in the first place. It is a particularly poignant shame that this happened within a week of Judith Cummings’ death (she was the first black woman to lead a news bureau for The Times). All of this smacks distastefully of our racist, sexist, pre-19th Amendment history of pitting white women and black men against one another. It sure feels like, while we parse whether or not to #BanBossy or embrace #GirlBoss, a whole lot of white men with power are having a chuckle and a smoke in a back room.

When she was Prime Minister of Australia, Gillard came to international attention as the result of a speech she made excoriating another politician for his sexism and misogyny. The speech resulted in an actual change in the Macquarie Dictionary of the definition of the word “misogyny” from “hatred of women” to include “entrenched prejudice of women.” No matter which definition you choose, and whether you locate the obstacles in explicit or implicit bias, the systemic exclusion of women from positions of power and leadership is a defining characteristic of misogyny.

Jill Abramson, brusque and pushy, did more to level the gender playing field at The New York Times than anyone before her.  She created a gender-balanced editorial board and an environment where young women felt they could more equitably thrive.  Score one for patriarchy and its global expression.

Photo courtesy of Michael V via Creative Commons 2.0

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on women’s rights, free speech and the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Her work appears regularly in a variety of media, including Salon, CNN, Huffington Post and The Guardian.




  1. MotorKitten says:

    Just this week, I sent out a link initially provided by Google celebrating the career, birth and scientific accolades of a female researcher from Britain…….. Headline: “Birth of Protein Crystallographer
    Completed the structural analysis of Insulin, credited with the development of protein crystallography.
    Dorothy Hodgkin, who would also co-found an international union of crystallographers; pursue global causes for peace; and remain the only British woman to receive a science Nobel Prize (1964).”

    The ONE AND ONLY response from a male scientific contributor in our work group was “What – are women just dumber over there?” It took me a bit to comprehend his comment/point. Turns out he was referring to the “only British woman to receive a science Nobel prize” *(ever).

    We did not have a follow up conversation – but I think we can assume his comment was either very derogatory toward women – or maybe asking for conversation about a larger issue – which I didn’t have time to address, or investigate myself. But here is your article and I believe there are key reasons why women – particularly in science, engineering and research are not receiving Nobel prizes. I can attest to my many personal experiences in science and research – my age, my gender, how I look, how I act – my 360 reviews that said I am not “nice” enough. Am I impolite? No? then what? Oh, I am too honest, I am too direct – I can’t “just get down to business, even if it is asked kindly and appropriately with respect.” I need to ask about your garden, your day,your spouse, cheer on your personal life a bit before I ask for the data I need for a mutual project. Hm. not feedback many men get – I am sure. You’re too direct (for an underling) but you’re probably just right for upper management but not likely you’ll ever get there since you’re not “nice” enough right now. Not to mention being treated constantly as helper hands and never referenced or mentioned in published works for group contributions.
    How WOULD a woman in research stand alone – enough to do quality and independant work and be liked, respected and touted publicly enough to even be runner for a Nobel Prize. Let alone be chosen…… Any thoughts, data, research into this?
    Also given that most female scientists since WWII have only had works published/referenced when given over to a male colleague.

    • Wassila Howes says:

      Brilliant points!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts here! Keeping up the good work in awakening society to the true tragedy of the ongoing social neglect, undermining women for centuries, as true contributors to social progress, and admirable efficient agents in building highly advanced civilisations of our current 21st century!

  2. Jack Barker says:

    The story of Executive Editor, Jill Abramson’s firing from the New York Times is going to drag on for months, and rightly so. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger has damaged The Grey Lady significantly by allowing CEO Mark Thompson to meddle in editorial decisions. One can be a newspaper CEO, or Executive Editor, but not both. The Times ‘self-reporting’ on this story has been more opaque than an Economist article on Vietnamese monetary policy.

    By all accounts, Abramson’s “brusque” nature and willingness to advocate forcefully for her point of view, later became seen as liabilities. Being “brusque” isn’t enough for a firing at this level, and the Times will pay for it. Firing the first female to hold the post in favor of the first black man to hold it, is not a recipe for claiming the moral high-ground.

    It’s time for Meddling Mark Thompson to go, and for the old white guys in Midtown to disband their cozy boy’s club.

    ~ JB

  3. Was the editor caught in a bind?
    Too disruptive in speaking her mind?
    Or was she just mean,
    With a zeal much too keen?
    Will we say to men now, “You be kind”?

  4. Julie Raines says:

    Great piece.

  5. I don’t think it ever stops, it has to kept in the forefront of all we do at all times, lest it seep and ooze back into the gel of organized, assumed, “natural” men centered- woman as object, and incapable of objectivity, sexist bullshit that it has always been. I’d like to be a Humanist, but I just don’t trust men. I remember having ‘friends that were boys’ when I was 12, but something happened and they turned and we became the enemy. An enemy they desperately want something from, petting, fucking, laundry, food, nurture (one sided) to be looked at by and admired…? Between the pop culture imagery of the intense fear of power in a woman, any woman, to the “intelligentsia”, not even bothering to cover woman hatred/fear in their carefully worded and well “thought out” arguments; about women’s abilities, behaviors, skills, uses…I just see an impenetrable wall of disdain, fear, hatred, confusion, irritation and blame. I am 43 years old, I have been reading MS. since I was 8. Somehow, I think women will be dealing with these issues, forever… I mean honestly, between Hollywood and crime rates, global issues of Woman Hatred and what women experience in their own day to day lives, It sincerely feel, like most men would just assume women stay home, shut up, do what they are told and get dinner on the table. leaving men free to be the competent, powerful persons of substance (with the moneys to back it up), while the little woman is just a prop, back drop, trophy wife, whipping girls or nest comfort. Yeah, it is a rambling, confusing response, the whole issue is rambling and confusing and a pain in the ass!

  6. Mary Scheible says:

    Historically newsrooms have been portrayed as tough, competitive and even cut throat. I am mystified as to why the qualities that make one a good news person have changed so dramatically.

  7. Heather says:

    My understanding is that Ms. Abramson found out she was being paid $75,000 less than her predecessor, and that she also learned that in her previous position at the Times, a male underling of hers was paid more than she was as his boss. She inquired about the discrepancy and was let go. This is gender discrimination, plain and simple.

  8. Thanks for connecting the dots of the bigger picture in eloquent ways.

  9. Great story. I did notice one typo. “Lack of deference is…” should be “in…

  10. In the interest of being fair —

    Variable also doesn’t mean what the NYTimes editorial board thinks it does. A variable is a characteristic that can be changed, or is changed for the purpose of reaching a certain range of research outcomes (i.e. we want to know if x affects groups y and z differently, or if it affects them the same way, so we make that a variable and see what it does in both cases). The title the NYTimes was looking for and failed to get was, “Missing Variable: Sex” (or gender, but I think in this case they meant sex).

    I don’t know what accounts for the NYTimes’ silliness in this case, but I imagine in the author’s case, she would understand why sex/gender can be a variable if she looked at it in a sociological context. For example, if we take gender as a variable in an experiment on how employers treat manifestations of ambition and see that female manifestations are received less positively, the author, I think, would be likely to understand that ‘variable’ does not mean ‘adaptations to the norm’.*

    *I also don’t think you meant ‘adaptation’, but I’m not sure I know which word you did mean. ‘Aberration’ or ‘deviation,’ maybe?

    • What you said! “Variables are adaptations to norms?” And women are “variations on men”? Did they fire their copy editors too? This is a scientific context. Think variable as in eighth grade algebra. Yikes.

  11. The whole notion is – what is considered normative and normal? Women who lead forcefully are viewed, as you mentioned, as being “pushy”, “brusque”, “shrill” and so on. Women who try to adopt a less assertive approach are deemed “weak”, “too nice”, or “ineffective.”

    Women in leadership are never able to simply lead. They must constant engage in self-critique – is my outfit appropriate? What tone do I need to take with this person? How do I assert my stance without damaging my image or my political capital? It is an exhausting, dizzying tightrope walk.

    Personally, I would love to see our society and our organizations engage in a critique of what leadership looks like from a variety of cultural contexts, rather than measuring everyone against this traditional view – and criticizing them for falling short when they do.

  12. So you just deleted the one where I showed why the author is wrong, and not just wrong, but ignorant of grade 9 science.

    “Variables are adaptations to norms.”

    Nope. That’s not what variables are.

  13. This is my first time pay a quick visit at here and i am really happy to read all
    at one place.

  14. Note to editor: Please just delete both of my comments. If your interest is in removing comments that show the author’s misunderstanding of the very rudimentary material she takes up, then I would rather none of my comments be present.

    I literally posted one comment showing why the author was mistaken and one on where the NYT was mistaken – if that is not balance, I don’t know what is. You deleted the one about where the author is wrong – if that’s not being a partisan hack, I don’t know what is.

    • Johnny, I know what a scientific variable is. My point, maybe obscured, is that the headline’s wording was an interesting play on words. Headlines, print precursors to Twitter’s 140 character limitations, often reflect more about implicit ideas than entire articles do. I am no wrong, just liberally interpreting and intentionally broadening the impact of the word “variable” so that it is relevant to the very basic idea that women are deviations from the human male norm.

  15. Not always a pedant says:

    Seriously? I just checked the comments and the pedants are out correcting typos and language usage with all the enthusiasm of a high school English teacher. Thank you for a thought provoking article. This is a complex issue with no easy answers and another perspective is always valuable.

    • No, you’re wrong. The article claims use of the term “variable” referring to women is sexist, gendered language. She then demonstrates that she has no idea what variable means. Not a typo — a fundamentally flawed argument smack in the middle of proving her point about female intelligence!

      • Not sure if this needs to be posted again here, but, I am really fascinated by this critique. As I explained above, I know what a scientific variable is. My point, maybe obscured, is that the headline’s wording was an interesting play on words. Headlines, print precursors to Twitter’s 140 character limitations, often reflect more about implicit ideas than entire articles do. I am no wrong, just liberally interpreting and intentionally broadening the impact of the word “variable” so that it is relevant to the very basic idea that women are deviations from the human male norm.

  16. Speaking as a straight white man, I personally don’t understand why so many men have issues with women in positions of power. I’m just 26, so maybe it’s a generation thing, but I honestly cannot remember ever thinking it was in some way wrong if a woman was in charge of something. Maybe it’s because my grandmother was always an Authority Figure when I was growing up, or maybe it’s because I read/played so many things where women were leaders when I was little (Elfquest, Forgotten Realms, Honor Harrington, Starcraft, etc). I dunno.

  17. All of this is great — well-written, good insights. But let us not try to get back into gender feminism. Misogyy is not cured by treating men and women differently. I know the author is in fact arguing in the opposite direction, that the norm should be more inclusive. But there is also some conceptual slippage in terms of including female “adaptive methods” as defining of females or contemporary femininity. Rather penalize the bad or excessive behavior or men, I think, that open the door to too much adaptive weirdness by females. Julia Gillard represented the heights of propriety, but the men around her were (and still are) being given a pass. The results have been nothing short of comedic in fact, as Australia has just been delivered a tough budget by those who had been in opposition to her, and people are now saying, “Ah, but for some reason, I trusted those guys implicitly.” They didn’t present any substantive evidence of a clear-minded policy or the capacity to rule the country or understand the workings of the budget prior to being elected — but so many people felt these rght wing men already deserved their implicit trust.

  18. “Seriously? I just checked the comments and the pedants are out correcting typos and language usage with all the enthusiasm of a high school English teacher. Thank you for a thought provoking article. This is a complex issue with no easy answers and another perspective is always valuable.”

    I don’t care about grammar mistakes or spelling mistakes.

    Her claim was ‘this headline displays a prejudice against women/imbedded sexism’. That argument only flows if ‘variable’ means what she thinks it does. And it doesn’t.

  19. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

  20. madbmac says:

    Watching the news this week has given me reason to pause and reflect. As a software engineer for 33 years, I have worked in a highly male dominated world that is also creative and chaotic. I have always found a way to thrive, but I tend to do better in entrepreneurial environments than I do in established (often bureaucratic) environments. The question is why?

    Is it my lack of deference to authority in organizations that may require (or believe they require) deference to authority to maintain order/control?

    Chemaly’s article gave me this clue, and I do think it is a big issue for our culture and for our growth as a society of humans. How does each gender send signals about their place in the pecking order? OK, I admit, I am influenced by my pets and chickens, but the reality is, anxiety levels go up when the place of each individual in the pecking order or a group is unclear. It can get ugly among either gender. Pecking order is a real thing, and it isn’t pretty.

    We may think we are far from our animal roots, but we are not. Women, like myself, who have pushed back against convention and expectation their entire lives are disinclined to show deference to any manager, male or female. My entire life has been an act of rebellion, and rebels are not known for their deference to authority figures. This is not a uniquely female issue — we all have a stake in this.

    As humans, and as animals, we rely heavily on subtle social clues, and most we don’t (and can’t) even consciously notice. We all need to get more comfortable with the people that challenge us and make us uncomfortable, and we also need to accept that we may be making other people uncomfortable just by missing the subtle social clues we may never know even existed.

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!