05/21/2014 08:51 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

The Jill Abramson Case

Last week Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, fired the executive editor, Jill Abramson. He promoted her then deputy, Dean Baquet, to the top job. The facts behind the firing may eventually come out. It appears they involve a dispute between Abramson and Sulzberger over equal pay, and Baquet and Sulzberger's unhappiness with how Abramson went about trying to hire the Guardian's Janine Gibson to run the paper's digital operation as Baquet's editorial co-equal. Whatever the facts, the humiliation of Abramson's public firing has rightly produced a firestorm of criticism aimed at Sulzberger and the paper's unseemly and possibly discriminatory handling of internal management challenges.

Abramson was the first woman to lead the New York Times. Like many men in leadership positions, her management style has been described as brusque, autocratic, mercurial. She is also widely praised for her brilliance as a journalist and editor, and for leading the paper's digital expansion and financial recovery. By contrast, sources have likewise described Bacquet as even-tempered and non-confrontational on the newsroom floor.

This narrative sounds remarkably similar to the storyline that evolved during the Democratic primary campaign when Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton fought for the top of the presidential ticket. In a 2008 debate, Obama turned to Hillary and said, "You're likeable enough, Hillary." Women can be exceptional leaders, the remark suggested, but they may well lose in their climb to the top if they cannot do so with a smile. To make the Obama-Clinton-Baquet-Abramson analogy a bit more explicit, Baquet, many Americans now know, is a light-skinned African-American man.

Let's assume that Baquet's apparent ultimatum to Sulzberger -- she goes or I go -- was justified because of the lack of transparency in the Gibson hire. And let's assume too that Sulzberger did not fire Abramson because she hired a lawyer to help her achieve equal pay with her predecessor. We're still left with the sobering truth that women in American institutions must not only excel at their professions, but also, as Ann Friedman wrote in New York Magazine , "...(unlike men) they're expected to downplay their confidence in order to seem nonthreatening and likable -- or face professional consequences." This "emotional labor," Friedman writes, "is the unwritten responsibility in every woman's job description."

The unfinished business of gender equality in the United States will surely get more attention if Hillary Clinton runs in the 2016 presidential election. For now, I am reminded of Brazil's 2010 election, when Dilma was widely criticized because she appeared neither likeable nor willing to squander energy on that "emotional labor." Whether Brazilians fire Dilma or promote her to a second term later this year, at least they can be sure that the issues, not the gender intangibles, will determine the electoral outcome.

This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.