My worst boss was a woman. As was my best boss.

WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger

Jill Abramson , former New York Times executive editor, appeared at the Wired Business Conference on May 7, 2013 in New York.

I've been struggling with both whether and how to write about Jill Abramson's departure from the New York Times, and the broader questions it raises for women in leadership roles.

Yes, we in the media world are obsessed with this story. But the Times still holds sway over our collective imaginations about what it means to do great journalism. So when something blows up there, we're riveted.

And the Times still – even in the digital age – is the paper of record. It's almost a public square where ideas are thrashed out, and even Vladmir Putin writes an occasional op-ed. This is no ordinary office.

So when "brusque," or "pushy," or other words that could describe a man, but so very rarely do, are attached to Abramson, it creates an instant and inescapable echo. Janet Yellen-Angela Merkel-Hillary Clinton-Meg Whitman-Elaine Chao... this? We're doing this again?

We may never know what role gender played in Abramson's firing. Only she and her boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., are privy to the all the details. A story by The New Yorker's peerless media reporter Ken Auletta says Abramson did indeed complain of lower pay compared to male peers, including the man she replaced.

And the fallout is inescapably gendered, again making women wonder why we (I can't write about this without admitting some personal stake), often feel we have to walk a tightrope the higher we rise at work. Be excellent, but not off-putting. Speak up for yourself and ask for a raise, but don't be too aggressive.

I hashed out some of the contradictions awhile back with the New York Times's own reporter Tara Siegel Bernard for Marketplace Money.

There's been a boom in books about women in the professional world lately. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's The Confidence Code. And the target audience is always women. You, female: Here's how you get better at navigating this maze. Here's how you trick the system.

Never you, company. Or you, university. Or you, hospital. That would be harder, of course.

But I do wonder what it would say to little girls if we placed the onus somewhere else but on their shoulders.

Of course it's also possible that Abramson is being painted with gendered language AND was also... not a great boss. And that's one of the trickiest parts of all of this. We can't know because there isn't a way to measure the situation in a vacuum free of gender.

All I know is that one of my worst bosses was female. As was my absolute best. And I know I'd like to see more of them. And then maybe the adjectives won't have quite as much power.

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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