Jill Abramson on the Challenge of Creating a Female 'Voice of Authority'

In 2006, Abramson wrote in More about how women can establish their power and authority, and challenge the "Daddy knows best hierarchies" of government, business and media. And click here for More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

By Jill Abramson
jill abramson new york times image
Jill Abramson
Photograph: Fred Conrad, New York Times

Running the paper’s noon news meetings in my first months on the job, I fell into a typical trap for women leaders—talking too much as I tried to prove myself. I also wanted to let colleagues get comfortable with me, to inject a little humor, to compliment good work. After years spent asking questions in Washington, a veritable temple of the authoritative voice, I’ve tried to avoid issuing edicts and making grand pronouncements. But I have strong opinions. Over the years, I’ve worried that my directness could come off as brusque or my criticisms heard in an outsize way, especially by male colleagues. I sometimes wondered whether expressing even my mildest reservation reminded someone of a chastising mother or complaining wife. Whatever the dynamic, it’s all the more reason not to be stingy with praise. I’ve often turned to Maureen, a Times veteran, for advice. (She once gently but firmly insisted that I win over a notoriously prickly editor by approaching him for counsel and guidance. She was right.)

Journalism, at least, is collaborative and still has antiauthoritarian streaks in its fundamental character. Other fields, from government to medicine to business, are still characterized by top-down traditions, even as the rising number of women in authority helps change that.

I’ve talked with Jamie Gorelick, who held top jobs in the Clinton administration and was a member of the 9/11 Commission, about what it’s like to work in what she has called “very male environments.’’ As general counsel for the Pentagon in the 1990s, with ranking that equaled a four-star general’s, Gorelick found that people in the military often responded reflexively to her with a crisp “Yes, sir.’’ Gorelick, 56, knew that this was a sign of respect. Still, maybe the presence of Gorelick and other women in the military will ultimately change the “yes sir’’ programming.

In more intimate settings too, women tend not to adopt the stentorian voice of authority. Washington, D.C., physician Beth Horowitz, age 51, says she strives to avoid the unilateral,
patriarchal “There is one right answer, and I have it’’ style she has seen in some older doctors. When she involves patients in the decision-making process, Horowitz has found that they’re more likely to follow her recommendations. Women doctors are sued less often by their patients, according to Horowitz. Her theory: “If their doctor includes them, patients don’t feel as angry if treatment does not turn out as well as everyone hoped.”

Whether in Washington or New York, I’ve had a great perch from which to watch powerful women as they evolve and learn to assert their authority. When I first met Hillary Clinton, in 1978, her husband was campaigning for governor of Arkansas, and she was extremely guarded. In the 1980s, when he had lost the governor’s chair and she was an influential lawyer, she was far more welcoming and unfettered. I found the same dichotomy later. When the Clintons were in the White House and Hillary’s power revolved around her husband, she seemed defensive and aloof. When she took national office, she was somewhat more approachable, and more at ease projecting power.

Still, Hillary Clinton is clearly struggling to find a natural and comfortable political style—at a time when the primacy of national security means that any female candidate must project strength. While voters are thirsting for authenticity in political candidates, it is still difficult for women to be their real selves.

The question of how Clinton performs in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections—and how the media covers that performance—may tell us more about women and power than the news on and from Couric. But at a time when the crush of news could hardly be more consequential, it’s heartening to have such women as Couric and Dowd—and the rest of us—setting the agenda and creating new voices of authority.

This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of More magazine.

Next: More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

First Published June 3, 2011

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