Jill Abramson's Firing Stirs Memories Of An Earlier New York Times

New York Times Executive Editor

Early coverage of Jill Abramson's firing as executive editor of The New York Times made reference to the publisher's history of being sued by its female employees in the 1970s for discriminatory practices regarding both assignments and pay.

That really took me back.

I worked for the online division of The New York Times Co. in the mid-1980s. We were kept far from the West 43rd Street headquarters in an office on lower Fifth Avenue before it became a trendy neighborhood. We were creating searchable Times entertainment and restaurant review databases and putting New York City government and the Times Crossword online, among other things.

We were non-union and therefore forbidden – literally – from communicating with any of the newspaper employees, who were all union members. Chick Boutsikaris, a lifelong Times man recovering from a heart attack, was our designated liaison with the newsroom.

An incident arose in the IT department.

Programmers had hung a poster of a naked woman on the wall and the lone female programmer found it offensive. Somehow, perhaps as the most senior female manager in the division, I was called into the matter and became a designated representative of the Times Women's Caucus, a forum established as a direct result of the affirmative action lawsuit, which was settled for $350,000 in 1978 and chronicled in reporter Nan Robertson's book "The Girls in the Balcony."

Entering the Times Building on West 43rd Street was an inspiring experience for a young woman in her early career. I was seated at the same table with icons such as Robertson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her account of dealing with toxic shock syndrome; Joan Cook, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and others who I did not recognize.

I got to the meeting by walking through the ugly third floor newsroom with its notoriously hideous orange carpet. The uneven floor rose and fell depending on where you were standing. It reinforced the insider's knowledge that The Times could be a place much more prestigious to work for from the outside than from within.

The primary focus of the conversation that day was young female interns and the male managing editors who were pursuing them. I don't think we ever got around to the topic of the girly poster in the tech space. If we did, I can't remember what was said.

Our fledgling division was shut down after successfully launching an online subscription service called New York Pulse. We'd been hand-picked by managers looking to create a distinct culture of diversity on the team. We attended staff meetings at the president's apartment, where he sometimes invoked Indian spirits to lead us safely to success. It was not your father's Times.

The New York Times went on to make great strides in its digital operations, most significantly by resecuring the online rights to its own news and then giving digital a seat at the grown-up's table -- integrating the print and digital worlds. The full story has yet to be told on the "brusque" Abramson, but it seems there's still not a lot of room for an assertive woman at the table.
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