The Campaign Spot

Why Most Women Should Cut Themselves Some Slack

A lot of women readers seemed to appreciate this section of today’s Morning Jolt:

Jill Abramson, and Why Most Women Should Cut Themselves Some Slack

A quick thought or two on Jill Abramson . . . 

What it takes to reach the top spot is often quite different from what it takes to stay there. Barack Obama learns, and relearns, that campaign skills don’t translate to effective governing. Newt Gingrich was a masterful leader of the House Republicans in the minority, but encountered and faced a harder time with a whole new set of obstacles, challenges and headaches as speaker. A lot of bands’ second albums flop, as they put their whole lives’ worth of learning and into creating the first one, and only a year or two into the second one.

Jill Abramson looks like another one of those examples. Raw determination, blunt directness, hiding information from others within the organization, an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer — all of those may be fantastic skills for an ambitious figure aiming to rise to the top of the New York Times or any other organization. But those qualities may not be so swell in a leader who has to manage a large staff and keep morale up.

Abramson’s salary complaints — as the NR editors said, “everybody should have Ms. Abramson’s million-dollar problems” — spurred folks like Felix Salmon and his editors at Vox to write that salaries shouldn’t be secret, contending that the secrecy of salary numbers is one reason women get paid less. They argued that women sometimes don’t know what amount is fair or on par with their peers and/or predecessors. Strangely, in a piece calling for widespread salary disclosure, I couldn’t find the salaries of the author and the Vox editors listed anywhere on the page.

Everybody’s unnerved by the thought of being significantly underpaid compared to their peers in the field, and similarly unnerved by the thought of being significantly overpaid compared to their peers in the field.

A couple of basic premises to keep in mind in all future “equal pay” stories:

  1. People have good reasons to want to keep their salary private.
  2. The employee has every right to try to get the best deal possible. Employees will have different ideas of what constitutes “the best deal” — for some it may be the highest possible pay, for others it may be time flexibility, benefits, time off, a particular title or duties, telecommuting or working from home, etc.
  3. The employer has every right to try to get the best deal possible — the best caliber or highest amount of work for the amount of money and benefits they’re paying the employee.
  4. When there’s a disagreement, no one is automatically the villain. Everyone’s just looking out for their interests, and hopefully negotiations remain cordial, because at the end of the process, everyone has to work together.

Sure, some employers are tightwads or run sweatshops where the pay is maybe half that of other wire services and paychecks bounce and you are your own tech department so when the friggin’ computer that was bought in 1982 and runs software written in the original Sanskrit goes down and erases everything you’ve written and then you have to send your copy to the editor across town by carrier pigeon — er, whoa, sorry about that, I had a flashback.

As I was saying, employers are people (“Corporations are people, my friend!“) and there will be good ones and bad ones. The bad ones tend to have karma bite them in one way or the other — most often by watching their best, or perhaps most motivated and talented employees leave to work elsewhere.

I’d argue very few Americans really benefit from buying into Democrats’ (and the New York Times’s! ) preferred simplistic, demagogic narrative that America’s workplaces are a Kafkaesque, dystopian landscape of nasty male bosses conspiring to pay their female employees less. This viewpoint may in fact hold women back. If you perceive your boss as a sexist, conniving shyster who’s out to rip you off, then it’s going to be hard to show up every morning and do your best work. And whatever your circumstances, you’ll probably benefit, directly or indirectly, from doing your best work.

Preface for everything that follows: I’m a guy, and thus, my ability to completely understand the experience of a working woman is going to be limited. So as usual, take everything with as many grains of salt as necessary. . .

There is a booming industry of authors and pundits — mostly successful women — assessing other women’s abilities to balance work and everything else: “Lean In.” “The Confidence Gap.” “Knowing Your Value.” “The Tiger Mom.” “Thrive.” Sometimes the theme is subtle, sometimes it’s explicit: American women, you’re doing it wrong! Read my book to learn how to do it right!

I am speaking broadly, and generalizing when I make this next statement: Men do worry about this sort of thing, but they don’t talk about it. They’re generally less likely to obsess about it, and/or publicly beat themselves up about it. There are not nearly as many bestsellers about the struggles of working fathers, magazine covers asking “Can Men Have It All?”, daddy blogs with passionate arguments and comments sections aflame, etc. For the most part, for better or worse, men get up and go to work and just deal with it. Any choice they make is going to have trade-offs. They will probably never be the workers they want to be and the spouse they want to be and the father they want to be, and the friend they want to be and all of the other roles simultaneously. That last word is important.

Working moms, trust me. Most of you are doing just fine. You’re doing better than you think. Stop letting immensely wealthy women make you feel like you’re not living your life correctly!

I realize the stoic male approach may not necessarily be for the best; I remember an article that suggested modern society had women who talked with their girlfriends about work, relationships, raising kids, how to get ahead, and all kinds of useful subjects, and men who talked with their guy friends about sports. The result was women quickly improved various life skills, while men learned a lot about sports. But the guys’ approach certainly is an one that involves less angst, self-doubt, and self-flagellation for failing to live up to some preconceived notion of how all of those roles should be fulfilled.

There’s a school of thought that argues that true “work-life balance” is impossible, at least on a daily basis, and that the more realistic approach is longer-term balance — i.e, some days, or weeks, you’re going to end up devoting more time to your work, and some days or weeks you’re going to end up devoting more time to your family, personal health, or other concerns.

That’s not a perfect solution. But nobody promised us a perfect solution.

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