Over the weekend, I had a long dinner in Paris with a close friend from our days together as foreign correspondents in Moscow. Natalie Nougayrède had gone on to become the first woman editor-in-chief and director of Le Monde, a post to which she was elected, in the paper's tradition, little more than a year ago with a record 80 percent-plus support from the staff. She had embarked on an ambitious transformation plan to unite the newsroom's separate print and digital teams—something newspapers in the Anglophone world had done years ago. Now, the predictable trouble had materialized, and she was facing an insurrection from threatened top editors.

By just after I returned home to Washington, she had quit, protesting a plan to reduce some of the top editor's powers and writing in her resignation letter that she no longer had the "peace and serenity" required to do the tough job of running a daily newspaper. In the news coverage about her exit, reporters barely mentioned her decisive leadership in seeking to turn around an economically troubled newspaper and its hidebound ways (including paying employees for more than 13 weeks of annual vacation), instead quoting unnamed sources in the Le Monde newsroom complaining that she was "very difficult to talk to."

Hours later, Jill Abramson of the New York Times was unceremoniously dumped as that paper's first woman executive editor, criticized by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for unspecified "management" shortcomings. I have long known and admired Abramson, who helped hire my husband at the Times, and had watched with dismay over the last year as any legitimate questions about her tenure were subordinated to tiresome, trite and utterly sexist debates over her "temperament" and whether it was the right one for a newsroom leader.

And sure enough this was exactly the fight that immediately erupted again on Wednesday among the commentariat about both women, a discussion that dwelled at great length on their personalities, their leadership skills and the extent to which their status as trailblazers in a male-dominated world was relevant. Even the defense—and there were many defenders—was being waged on this battlefield, the terrain of women's personal qualities and whether they truly belong in the public positions that remain a man's unquestioned privilege.

It was predictably awful, and I was not in the least bit surprised. Because this has happened to just about every woman I know who has dared to take up a highly visible leadership position in our great but troubled news organizations. Including me.

We like to pretend it's different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter that glass ceiling into thousands of pieces. But it's not true. There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it's a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers, category-defying outliers who almost invariably still face a comeuppance.

Sheryl Sandberg may be a billionaire and a bestseller, but the Facebook COO's self-help book is not a recipe for success in this or any other field. At least not yet. All of these women in journalism, Abramson perhaps most of all, have leaned in. They paid close attention to those anxiety-producing cover stories in the Atlantic about having it all. They looked men in the eye and asked for promotions and raises (well, sorta, kinda, maybe—look what apparently happened when even someone as powerful as Abramson dared to complain upon learning that her pay was not equal to that of her male predecessor). They somehow overcame the stigma of being called "bossy" as girls, and most of them have balanced both challenging career experiences and raising children at home. They did not lack in confidence—or at least figured out how to project it, even when they weren't in fact entirely feeling it. In short, these women editors have done most of the things the professional women's empowerment class recommends.

But still, they were not really able to succeed. They—and I—remained stuck in a trap not of our own making. It's called editing while female.


I should start by saying this is an article I never wanted to write. I never wanted it to be about me. Or about being a woman. I considered myself so lucky and privileged to make a career in journalism even—especially!—at a time of enormous change. I was an optimist, even about the Internet, killer of tradition, and I believed that the bad old days of institutionalized discrimination were mostly behind us. As for the other stuff, the lingering evidence this was not entirely the case, I just avoided it. I didn't write about how isolated I felt as a young working mom surrounded by older men or how to run a meeting while having a miscarriage. I did not blog about the male editor who told me I shouldn't worry about having my own slot as a Washington Post foreign correspondent alongside my husband, since I couldn't possibly hope to be his peer as a journalist anyway. Even when I became a department head and discovered that I was paid less than all of the other senior editors at the Post, I said nothing, because after all, I was younger and I was a woman and I didn't want it to be about that. And besides, speaking up would mean being judged. And inevitably being found wanting.

So I said nothing and considered myself privileged—if more than occasionally terrified—when I was sent off to cover the war in Afghanistan, and heard the sound of gunfire for the first time while reporting on the battle of Tora Bora. I learned Russian and traveled to Iraq and slept on a hospital roof in Basra with a team of British snipers and co-wrote a book about Vladimir Putin. I edited Roll Call, a newspaper about Congress, in my 20s. I edited the Washington Post Outlook section and Foreign Policy magazine.

Shortly before I became the editor of the national news section of the Washington Post in late 2006, Ben Bradlee, the legendary former editor of the Post, came up to me at a party. I hear you're going to get the national job, he said to me. "Do you have the balls for it?"

I was 37 years old, my son was a toddler, and my incredibly supportive husband, the Post's longtime White House reporter. I was sure that I did. But I was wrong.

In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn't want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper's leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century; and 3) media reporters are an obsessive bunch, and they like nothing more than a good controversial-woman-editor story.

In the end, just about every single thing that has been said about Jill Abramson and Natalie Nougayrède was also said about me. That I was difficult and hard to understand and divisive. That there were questions of "management style." Some of them were surely true, then and now. When I hear Abramson called pushy or Nougayrède called uncommunicative, it's with a shudder of recognition. 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 TimesLe 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.

Is it fair? Is it relevant? I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn't really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old.

How much of my experience was because I was a young, brash woman overseeing an entrenched staff of middle-aged men (and a few women) anxious about their jobs in a tumultuous time? Well, I can't say for sure, of course, but certainly I believed it to be a factor, just as I am struck by the overwhelmingly gendered story that is being told about both Abramson and Nougayrède. Did I make mistakes too? Of course I did, many of them, big and small. I am a blunt talker, and paid too little heed to those who found my style off-putting; I had no patience for the office politics that are the lifeblood of a big place; and I trusted those I shouldn't. I'm sure these other editors made mistakes too, though I don't know the particulars of their cases beyond being saddened by the painful cliché of how they are playing out publicly.

And that's the point: The leaders who succeed are the ones who are allowed to make mistakes, who have the time and space and breathing room and support from their bosses to push and prod, experiment and improvise until they get it right. Because all of journalism is in the midst of upheaval right now, and that Silicon Valley cliché about failing in order to succeed really does apply. It turned out I did not really have the support of my boss, and I believe that to be the actual—and much more prosaic—story of many of these contretemps over controversial editors and executives who happen to be women. Their owners and stockholders and supervisors hire them to be "change agents"—to embrace the digital transformation and make something great of it all the while happily collecting credit for hiring a woman in the first place—but then don't stick around when the change comes and the backlash ensues. Don't just take my word for it. There's even a study to prove it.


Earlier this month, Politico Magazine, the new publication I helped launch in mid-November, published its third print edition, a special issue devoted to the media. One of the stories concerns Hillary Clinton and her decades-long fear and loathing of the national press corps. Another profiles Mary McGrory, the late political columnist who was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. A third is a long, deeply reported feature about the $100 million-plus failed effort to resurrect Newsweek magazine under the stewardship of longtime editor Tina Brown by merging it with her website the Daily Beast.

All three are strong, successful women who have done much to admire, and whose stories are far too complex to reduce to the satisfying simplicity of good or bad, up or down: trailblazers, but three-dimensional human ones, torn, as McGrory was, between a career in a sexist world and a more conventional life (and sexist it was—a job at the New York Times didn't pan out when the Washington bureau chief insisted she answer the telephones too); haunted, as Clinton has been, by a media culture that can't help but pass judgment on everything from her hairstyles to how she dealt with her husband's philandering. As for Brown, the portrait of her last few years was inevitably less than flattering; a failed project, especially one that costs so many millions, leaves in its wake much second-guessing. My own view is that women should not be immune from criticism because they are women—nor should they be subjected to it just because of who they are.

A few days after sending the issue to the printers, I received an email from a media reporter, informing me that he was reporting a story on what he called my "alleged management style." It went on to elaborate: "The critique on you seems to be that while you are obviously a very accomplished journalist with a deep well of knowledge and smart ideas about stories, your managerial/editorial 'temperament' strikes some people as difficult to work with." It is the kind of email that every woman who leads an organization, no matter how new, no matter how small, dreads, and for me it had all the power of a traumatic flashback. I sent no response because I did not know how to answer him. It was still easier to say nothing, to avoid the fear of being judged all over again, and I was relieved when no article appeared. I figured that the reporter had decided that, terrible harpy or no, whatever trials and tribulations we've had in launching Politico Magazine, our journalism prizes won and two editors leaving for new jobs elsewhere, were probably just not that interesting.

Of course, when it comes to stories about female editors and their difficult alleged management styles, it's not about the journalism. Google the phrase and you'll see what I mean: Among the articles you are likely to encounter is a controversial Politico news story last year by Dylan Byers about Abramson's tenure at the Times. The article had a great scoop as its lede, about a conflict between Abramson and the managing editor, Dean Baquet, who will now succeed her, but what drew most attention was the criticism leveled at Abramson in the article by various anonymous sources. And those complaints more or less boiled down to critiques of her style and personality: "temperament." It occasioned a furious backlash elsewhere in the media, as women rushed to defend Abramson and mock the article for its caricatured, out-of-date portrayal of a woman boss. "Leave Jill Abramson Alone, You Sexists," demanded an article in the Daily Beast. Some now see the Politico article as a harbinger of this week's ugly denouement, or proof of how Abramson really was a flawed leader.

But what I'm struck by is the depressing circularity of the whole conversation. You don't have to pronounce judgment on the merits of Abramson's tenure to be dismayed by the awful sameness of the charges that are hurled by those anonymous newsroom sources. The women are always labeled smart but difficult, unapproachable and intimidating. It is always, of course, mind you, not a question of their journalistic merits but of their suitability, their personality. And eventually of course their publishers or boards give in to the narrative too. Maybe there were serious policy disagreements, fights about how to handle change or even plain old-fashioned power struggles. But that is never what's cited as the official rationale when the ax falls on these women. And why should it be? There is already a narrative out there, a convenient excuse. It's about "management style" or "communication."

Now, I have worked with many male editors and bosses over the years. Most of them were wonderful and supportive, as with my current partners at Politico. One or two were egomaniacal jerks. Almost all were difficult in some way. I have never read a story that I can recall about any of their "temperaments."

Natalie Nougayrède is a serious, self-contained Frenchwoman, a brave war correspondent who in recent years loved to write long analyses of European foreign policy. About the only thing she has in common with Jill Abramson is that they are both smart and ambitious and courageous enough to enter the public arena. But now they are treated as one and the same: controversial women editors. Great journalists to be sure, but perhaps maybe just not suited to lead through times of great change. Never mind that their temperament did not change in the time between when they were given these jobs and when they lost the support of the people who gave them the positions. Never mind that their temperament—their bravery and integrity and ability to stand up even to withering criticism—was what made them able to succeed in the first place. Or that they appear to have entirely different temperaments from each other. That's not the point. The point is this: They were in fact guilty. Of editing while female.

Love Jill Abramson or hate her, do you really believe that all of these women were unsuited for their jobs and temperamentally incompatible with the positions they had worked so hard to earn, after having beaten out male competitors in every case, and in environments where few if any other women flourished? Is it really possible that women editors, a rare species to begin with, can have a failure rate so close to 100 percent?

But this is a reality so unpleasant it's understandably hard to confront. Especially given that we are surrounded as never before by lean-inners and you-go-girlers cheering on women and very unhappy about others who do not—try running a critical article on Michelle Obama, and you'll know what I mean. A few years ago, there was much outrage in the blogosphere about the supposed macho environment here at Politico, a place that now takes great pride in its increase in senior women editors and managers. Look at all the hand-wringing that regularly ensues over the lack of women columnists and magazine writers and hard-news beat reporters; we seem genuinely insistent these days that we want women as part of the conversation.

But as welcome as this new empowerment narrative is and as supportive as the institution I've landed at is, I can't help but see it as a jarring contrast with the reality of what it actually means to be editing while female. Or writing for that matter. You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a woman willing to suit up for life in this public arena. To be willing to be called difficult and pushy and all the rest when you raise your hand. To be told your standards are simply too high—or not high enough. To never respond or defend yourself, because that would be combative or risky or just plain unpleasant.

Is all this coverage of the New York Times and how it treated its first woman editor going to convince more young women to enter the journalism business? You can bet not.

Susan Glasser is editor of Politico Magazine.