Friday, May 16, 2014

Perspective from the Frying Pan, Thoughts on Jill Abramson, and Oatmeal Crusted Trout with Pan-Fried Leeks

The Times was actually my major news source for morning headlines, after my NPR listen on the way in to work.  I respected them as a brand.  Until the news broke about Jill Abramson.

First it was a story about salary: Abramson reportedly found out that she was making less than her predecessor, in both of her previous roles (executive and managing editor), and went to confront the management about the disparity.  She was allegedly told that her predecessor had more years at the Times, and that the pay was equitable, given that additional factor.

Today, the story is about Abramson's "pushy," overly aggressive" and "strong-willed" behavior in the newsroom.  And about how that became a source of concern for the newsroom management.

The Times may have been justified in firing Jill Abramson; I'm sure that it's more complicated and messy than the social media frenzy has made it seem.  But the question about normative behavior is an elephant in the room here, because I can't help but wonder how this entire situation would have played out if the employee in question had been male.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk given by Deborah Prentice, a professor of psychology, about gender and normative behavior.  She has found, in years of longitudinal study, that male college students have a much narrower bandwith of non-normative behavior than females do; that is, that females have many more proscriptions and prescriptions that males do, when compared to a non-gendered "student norm," or what students would describe as the "typical college student."  It is much less desirable, normatively speaking, for a woman to be "controlling," "rebellious," "arrogant," and highly desirable to be "cheerful," "friendly," "polite," "warm and kind," etc.  On the other hand, there are no "highly desirable" traits for men, and only one "non-desirable" trait: being domineering.  (If you're interested in this, there are some great charts on pp. 277-278 of her 2002 article on the subject.)  Essentially, women have to work harder to be "normal."  (In case you're curious: she finds that this is the case on many other campuses too, though the effects are much more pronounced at private than at public schools.)  This sounds a lot like what Olga Kazhan wrote in her article about Abramson for The Atlantic:
"In 2007, New York University’s Madeline E. Heilman found in a clinical study that people tend to resist female leaders who are direct and assertive, but they warm to them if those same female bosses express “communal” characteristics that hint at more traditional gender roles.

For example, a memo about a female company vice president attesting to her “outstanding effectiveness, competence, and aggressive achievement focus” went over much better when the researchers appended this paragraph:
Although Andrea’s co-workers agree that she demands a lot from her employees, they have also described her as an involved manager who is caring and sensitive to their needs. She emphasizes the importance of having a supportive work environment and has been commended for her efforts to promote a positive community.
As I’ve written before, people tend to like female leaders best when they lead their organizations not unlike one would lead a casual weekend drum circle—cheerily deferring to others and giving everyone a chance. Meanwhile, people tend to resent female leaders more than their male counterparts when they behave authoritatively. And Abramson, by all accounts, was nothing if not authoritative."
In a nutshell: women who display "normative" male behavior make people uncomfortable.  But those same behaviors, which may be tolerated in a male, could actually end up getting a woman fired, and it could actually look legal.

Though I don't have much love for Sheryl Sandberg, I wonder where she is in all of this.  Abramson did just what she was supposed to: she leaned in, she made her demands known, she looked for opportunities to advance.  But that approach simply doesn't fly in environments still dominated by traditional values.  Most people in power like people whom they can control, and older, experienced women who rock the boat don't fit that profile.  I've been watching employment trends among my friends for some time now, and heard this from one of them yesterday, after the Abramson news broke: "when we had layoffs recently, all the female editors laid off were over the age of 35. When the vp opens his door now, he sees only his male buddies and the young (mostly pretty) young women who report to them."  I've seen it happen again and again.

Women may have "come a long way."  Certainly, we are no longer living an era in which there are only three professions open to us.  But part of what I find worrisome is that, like the conversation about racism in the U.S., the conversation about sexism has gone underground, out of the frying pan, and into the fire.  We think that we're post-racial AND post-gender.  From my perspective, though, we still have miles to go before we sleep.  

What do you think about the Jill Abramson story?

Pan-Fried Oatmeal-Crusted Trout

4 filets trout (5-6 ounces each)
1/2 c. milk
1 c. rolled oats
1/2 t. fresh rosemary
1/2 t. fresh thyme
2 t. grated lemon peel
1/4 t. pepper
pinch of salt
2 T. canola oil
2 T. butter
1 c. leeks, washed and chopped
1/2 c. unsalted pecans

Rinse the trout filets and soak them in a bowl with milk for 15 minutes. 

In the meantime, process oats, rosemary and thyme in a blender or food processor until you get a fine flour.  Place the flour in a bowl, and add lemon peel, pepper, and salt.

Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Dredge the filets in the flour mixture, and place in the saute pan, flesh side down.  Cook about 5 minutes, until the fish is golden, and then flip to cook on the other side for about 2 minutes, until heated through.  Remove and keep warm.

Melt the butter in the same pan over medium high heat, add the leeks and saute until just tender, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or so.  Add pecans and saute for another minute.  Spoon the leek mixture over the trout and serve.
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