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Jill Abramson on Women, Leadership and Authenticity

02/17/2015 12:24 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

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Photo courtesy of WME.

As executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson was one of the most powerful women in the world. She was the first woman in the newspaper's 163-year history to hold the post. Last spring, Jill was let go in an abrupt and controversial dismissal, with many pointing to "sexism" as the cause. No matter what happened, she would tell you to honor your authentic self, no matter what the consequences.

"I have always felt, for better or worse in my own working life, that at a certain level you are who you are, and the only way to do your best work is to be true to yourself," said Jill in a phone interview with me last month.

Finding the compass to guide your career can be challenging, but you can always find your way by listening to your inner voice.

"I think that women, especially some of the younger women that I have talked to about their careers over time, can get very tangled up, and sort of worry and self-analyze about how they may appear and come across. Am I being too aggressive? Am I being forceful enough or aggressive enough? Asking every kind of question about their style," said Jill. "I think you can tie yourself up in knots doing that."

In Jill's case, being true to herself meant being a gutsy editor, exposing abuses of power, and always looking for the story behind the story. "As executive editor, probably the journalism I'm proudest of is the journalism that David Barboza did exposing corruption in the highest ranks of power in China. That kind of accountability journalism is what I love," said Jill.

In 2013, David Barboza was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister.

Jill was also involved in launching and shaping the stories that Jodi Kantor has been writing about the role of gender and leadership in society, including the treatment of women at Harvard Business School, Wall Street and the Mormon Church. "I'm very happy to see the Times showcasing that work even though I am not there anymore," said Jill.

Maybe most notable of Jill's accomplishments, to an outsider at least, is the fact that when Jill became executive editor of the paper of record, half of the masthead quickly became women. "We were half the sky for the first time in history," said Jill. "I tried to put my muscle where my mouth is and when I became executive editor of the Times, it was very important to me to promote women."

Jill is well aware that there are still people at the New York Times who did not like that she was openly pushing to have more women in the top jobs. "It didn't surprise me that there was resistance," said Jill. "But that's the only way I know."

Jill's first boss in journalism was a woman. Working at the Boston bureau of Time magazine, Jill came under the mentorship of Sandy Burton, the highest ranking woman at Time. "She was fantastic and was incredibly encouraging to me at the very dawn of my working life," said Jill. "I thought, 'Ohhhh, the working world is so welcoming to women.' And of course I never worked for another woman again," Jill said with a laugh, and for good reason.

In the news industry today, there are very few women in top positions of leadership, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post and Susan Glasser of Politico being two of the exceptions.

Leadership often determines who gets the bylines in major publications likes the Times. In a 2014 study commissioned by the Women's Media Center, researchers found that at the 10 most widely circulated newspapers, on average, men garnered 63 percent of the bylines, while women just 37 percent. Interestingly, the New York Times had the widest gender gap with male-female bylines. In this same study, it was found that articles appearing on the front page of the New York Times quoted men 3.4 more times often than women. The rate was not as high when women wrote the story.

So what's going on here?

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Adam Grant, Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote an article in the Times that addresses what might be happening.

In "Speaking While Female," they describe a situation very familiar to professional women. "When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she's barely heard or she's judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more."

"That rang totally true to me as that happened to me all the time when I was a young journalist," said Jill, citing the article when we spoke.

"Early on in my career I would attend story meetings and I would speak up and make a point and people would talk over me, and then later in the conversation, they'd say: 'Oh, Jerry was making such a good point.' And they would repeat the point," Jill shared. "It was heard as having been said by a guy."

In a study by a Yale psychologist, Victoria L. Brescoll, male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.

"I think early in my career I internalized that I often wasn't heard when I spoke and that later on it probably did create in a sense an unnecessary insecurity because obviously as Washington bureau chief, or managing editor or executive editor my voice was going to be heard. But I think insecurity over that may have encouraged me to talk too much and listen too little. And I regret that."

Jill's advice to young women?

"Find a story that just obsesses you and report the hell out of it. Then write it in a compelling way," she says. "Learn to be a master of narrative because that talent will take you to the very top."

And, remember to laugh. "You have to have someone in your life who you can really laugh about everything with -- to be completely blunt -- about all the shit you have to take because you are a woman."

Jill Abramson will be a keynote speaker at Watermark Silicon Valley's inaugural Lead On Conference for Women on February 24th in Santa Clara, CA. She will be joined by keynote speakers Hillary Clinton, Diane Von Furstenberg and Brené Brown.

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Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a women's leadership mentor and coach, specializing in helping women find their voice. She is the author of the bestselling book, Find Your Voice: A Woman's Call to Action. Learn more at tabbybiddle.com.

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