Advice To Jill Abramson from My Mom

by Rebecca Greenfield

Like Jill Abramson, my mom was fired for being a mercurial bitch in a position of power. Unlike the former Times editor, my mom was certainly — specifically — fired for asking for equal pay.

As the Abramson story has unfolded, the narrative has shifted from one of gender discrimination and pay disparities to one of Abramson’s mismanagement and her mishandling of an “important personnel matter.” The New York Times media critic David Carr called “all the talk about pay inequity… a sideshow.” That doesn’t mean Abramson didn’t experience discrimination, through her pay or otherwise. Would a man have clashed with his colleagues in the same situation? Pushy women get fired; assertive men rise to the top.

My mom was a total ’90s power mom. She had shoulder pads, coffee breath, and a demanding full time job as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon for kids. Her life was a series of “first evers.” She was the first in her immediate family to go to college, and then the first to go to medical school. In 1990, at 38, she was appointed associate professor at SUNY Buffalo and granted tenure — the first woman in the medical school to achieve that status. In 1996 she was promoted to full professor of otolaryngology and pediatrics, one of only 12 women in the nation to achieve the highest rank for university faculty.

Like Abramson, she had made it. She “had it all” before having it all was declared a thing women couldn’t have.

The next year, the university passed her over as interim chair of her department and gave the position to a man with fewer qualifications. As she helped her new boss with the department’s residency program review — because he didn’t know how to do it — she discovered, while sifting through relevant documents, a pay gap. As a tenured full professor at SUNY Buffalo, she made half of what lower-ranking, less qualified male colleagues made. At the hospital where she practiced, her male colleagues, all of whom had smaller practices and less seniority, made up to five times her salary.

After that, she pushed. SUNY fired her in 1998, stripping her of her tenure, compensation, and benefits. Like Abramson, she sought legal counsel. She spent the next two years trying to solve the issue internally.

In 2000, she filed two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After that the university shut down the ENT residency program without cause — just ”one piece of the attempt to destroy Dr. Brodsky’s [medical career],” her lawyer told The Buffalo News.

A year and a half later she had obtained seven “right to sue” letters, one for each complaint, plus five others for retaliation she had suffered. She filed suit in federal court in September of 2001.

Because of the way university pay is structured, the lawsuit alleged that the medical school’s system for paying faculty systematically underpaid women. Here’s The Buffalo News in October 2002:

At the crux of Brodsky’s allegations is the medical school’s complicated system of classifying clinical faculty members. United University Professions — the union that governs UB’s faculty — and UB’s administration are at odds over the portion of the contract that addresses minimum salaries for professors who, like Brodsky, are classified as ‘geographic full-time.’

Professors are often paid from a variety of sources, which further muddles tracking of who earns how much. Salary sources include the state, UB’s teaching hospitals and the practice plan, into which clinical faculty members must pay a set portion of wages made in their private practices.

Brodsky argues that the system lacks any clear-cut provisions for determining faculty salaries and has consequently allowed the university to monetarily reward and punish professors at will.

For the next seven years she fought a legal battle to prove that the system punished women. I remember sitting with her at our kitchen table with stacks of three-ring binders filled with spreadsheets she had obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The pages contained the names, ranks that corresponded with a number value, and salaries of medical faculty over multiple years. She had me go through the rows of names, highlighting the ranks and subsequent pay of relevant female medical school staff, who like her, were classified as “geographic full time,” or “GFT.”

Even a middle schooler could see it: The girl professors had lower ranks, and therefore made less money.

Some might argue that, when women like Abramson and my mom seek equal pay, they just want to — in the words of The Buffalo News — “fatten their bank accounts.” My mom countered, “I’m doing this because it’s wrong, and there’s not many women in a position to fight.” Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming; financially, at least, a full-time physician can afford to take one on. At the time she believed that her fight would lead to greater equality for all.

In 2003, she had a significant win. A judge ruled that SUNY had violated union compensation rules for faculty at all four of its medical schools. The class-action suit she had filed resulted in an estimated $8-$12 million dollars in payments to underpaid faculty. Then, in 2007, she settled with the university; in 2007 and 2008 she and the hospital “resolved our differences to the satisfaction of all parties.”

Throughout the ordeal, which she called her third job, she managed a large practice and continued her academic pursuits. She published over 100 scientific papers and 27 book chapters. She also co-authored Pediatric Swallowing and Feeding: Assessment and Management — a classic in the field. (I remember receiving embarrassing but hilarious faxes from my mom detailing the progress she had made on her “swallowing” book while I was at summer camp.)

By some metrics, the lawsuit was successful; by others, its success was overmatched by the emotional and financial toll. “I felt marginalized, demeaned, and alone,” she wrote in an ebook she published. Throughout litigation, the retaliation continued. She didn’t get invited to sit on prestigious committees; she got passed over for job interviews. “In 2005, she was dismissed as director of the Center for Pediatric Quality at Women & Children’s Hospital and two years later she was fired as director of Pediatric Otolaryngology.” That’s from her obituary. Getting fired followed my mom to her grave.

My mom kept up a blog regarding her interests in medicine and gender equality. It was also a corny mom blog with clip art illustrations and, at times, passive-aggressive musings on family, holidays, and vacations. At one point she hoped to turn parts of the blog into a book: The Buffalo Bitch Trials. That never happened because she became too busy with life, and then with death.

She certainly would have commented on the Abramson situation — even as the focus of the story has moved away from gender — if she had not passed away in February. I can imagine her headline, something like “Two Cheers For Jill Abramson: When Pushy Women Get Fired And Why A Lawyer Isn’t the Answer.”

In a post like that, she’d talk about how unsurprising and disturbing it is that Abramson made less than her male colleagues. She might talk about the tough decisions that faced Abramson as she discovered these pay disparities. At some point she would address how women of her and Abramson’s cohort have to be pushy bitches to get ahead. She would ask: Would a man have clashed with male subordinates? She would probably also point out her favorite paradox: Women are pushy; men are leaders.

Her main point, though, would caution Abramson against suing the Times. She’d say the legal system is slow, costly, and doesn’t lead to progress or justice.

Previous blog posts make it so this column has almost already been written.

On pay disparities: “We are once again reminded that women who work outside the home have to work 3 1/2 months longer than their male counterparts to make the same annual salary. Surprised? I hope not. Are you as tired of hearing about this as am I? I hope so.”

On bitches: “Just in case you didn’t know, the word ‘bitch’ has been transformed from one of degradation to one of pride. In 1968, in her ‘Bitch Manifesto,’ feminist attorney Jo Freeman redefined this word for us: ‘A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her….[Bitches] have loud voices and often use them.’

“And that is the way I am. I speak up, I speak loud, and I speak things people often do not want to hear. Especially when it rocks their nice little, mostly unfair, not to mention probably illegal, little boats.”

On pushy bitches: “Oh, but what about assertive women coming across as ‘pushy.’ Gender stereotyping of women has to be called onto the carpet for what it is–a way to keep our voices from being heard. Learn the words that counter the stereotype. You are not pushy, you are assertive.”

On lawyering up: “Why should the individual who has been wronged bear the burden to police the system and then spend years of her life, emotional and financial capital trying to enforce the laws of the land? I am convinced that equality will never be realized as long as the victim has to police the system, be the whistleblower and then spend an average of ten years navigating a complicated legal system at great personal and financial cost. As a litigant I reviewed 40,000 pages of discovery documents, dealt with expert witnesses and data consultants, and attended or read more than 30 depositions. I constantly worried about how I was going to do all of this and still have time for my family, my work, my friends, and myself. The emotional toll was compounded by the enormous economic toll.”

I was nine when my mom first told me about the gender discrimination she was experiencing, and I didn’t believe her.

Later, after devoting a decade to a soul-sucking lawsuit, she would often come to me with the same question: Do you think it was worth it? I was always slightly irritated at her for making me answer a “do you think I’m fat?” type inquiry. But I also always said yes, and I meant it. She had a cause, she fought for it, and she “resolved her claims” because she was right. She toiled so other women don’t have to.

Her case didn’t solve anything, and she knew that. But at least the Jill Abramsons of the world have her experience to live by. I know my mom would not recommend the same fate for Abramson. By any account, her lawsuit had been successful. But success often — maybe always, where women are concerned — comes at a monumental price.

Photo via epicharmus/flickr.

Rebecca Greenfield is a staff writer at Fast Company.