What Women Want

What a New York Times fiasco can teach us about next-generation women in the workplace
Posted May 29, 2014

When Jill Abramson got the New York Times’ signature “T” tattooed on her back, she probably didn’t think she’d ever have a reason to bash the Times publicly.

Oh, how times have changed.

Abramson, now infamously out as executive editor of the Times (though she’s pledged to keep the tattoo), has garnered some applause for keeping a level – and optimistic – head at a Wake Forest commencement address on the heels of the firing.

I don’t know whether Abramson was fired due to a difficult personality that alienated her staff or because she asked why her male predecessor was paid $84,000 more. Times higher ups say her total benefits package narrowed that gap, but Abramson’s outing raises many questions today for women in the workplace.

Are men, as higher education statistics show, falling behind women in achievements, if not pay? And, if women still make less than men, is it because they choose less work-centric lifestyles? Or are women’s career paths simply labeled, consciously or unconsciously, as less valuable than men’s?

In retail design, there is a shift from the old world of men designing for women to women designing for, well, themselves. It’s a curious change for an industry so geared to serving women that we often write of “she” and “her” in VMSD features, knowing readers understand: The shopper is always female.

When VMSD reviewed student projects in Cleveland and Cincinnati last month, we saw a glut of young, female designers, most of who had already been hired even as they presented their final projects.

At VMSD’s Designer Dozen party in Vegas, an exec from a top firm confessed that he recognized several of the current and past winners as former members of his staff, shyly admitting he wondered if there was anyone he might poach this year.

The sharks circle.

As the economy creeps forward, it’s time to take a hard look at new talent. Is there money for raises, room for promotions for the best among them? Because the next generation is here – and hungry.

The winning women I spoke to described long hours as a norm; anything to keep the client happy. One nominee was lauded for working so many hours that we weren’t sure whether to dole out the award or check her pulse.

But these women also have a certain lifestyle in mind. No one mentioned their employer without mentioning how they felt about its hometown, and most discussed knowledge sharing among coworkers as a sign of a having good job.

Another commonly cited plus? Programs that allowed them to give back – even if it added time to 10-hour days. Opportunities to mentor entry-level staffers and interns, lead social hours or take charge of volunteer projects were also seen as a chance to give back and grow.

Typically, the youngest generation of women in the workforce is unsure of itself. Such stories as Abramson’s make women wonder: Is sexism something to watch for? Are salary negotiations tainted, even from the start? (Most young women will say, “I don’t know; I hope not.)

The rising tide of women in the workforce may well be strong enough to supersede any lingering inequalities. For employers, the trick is finding a way to keep them from being hired away.