Leaning in – and falling over

Jill Abramson at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 2012.

Jill Abramson at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 2012.

So what do we think? Is Shelly Sterling in cahoots with disgraced hubby Donald to retain ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers by divorcing him and secretly allowing him to run the team?

Or is she a woman who recognizes her moment and, sensing his vulnerability, has decided to divorce him and make a power play for control of the team?

“I think the latter,” a male friend said the other night over dinner.

OK, so Shelly Sterling is seeking to become the principal owner – the team is actually owned by a family trust – at the moment when two women have lost prominent journalism positions. Jill Abramson was dismissed as the first female executive editor of The New York Times May 14 while Natalie Nougayrède, the first female editor of France’s Le Monde, announced she was stepping down from her post. And while Abramson apparently confronted her bosses about making less in salary and benefits than previous executive editor Bill Keller, the bottom line in both cases is that she and Nougayrède were considered controlling bosses who had lost the confidence of their employees.

But were they really controlling bosses, or were they perceived to be controlling bosses, because we expect women to be the “nice” sex? I have said time and again on this blog and elsewhere, that I’d rather work for a man, because they tend not to take everything personally. (Of course, that has its drawbacks. Remember Fran Lebowitz’s famous remark that men tend not to take things personally, including, for example, their own children.)

I feel great guilt in saying I’d rather work for a guy, and I have to admit that two of the strong supporting players in my upcoming novel, “In This Place You Hold Me” – arts writer-turned-football columnist Brenna James of The New York Record and her nemesis and former editor, Vienne Le Wood of New York Rumours magazine – bear more than a passing resemblance to me and some of my former editors.

Still, to be fair – and I’ve observed this before, too – women are new to the power game. They have few role models and precedents. Their mentors in this regard tend to be men, so what happens? In an effort to appear tough, as opposed to strong, they overcompensate and come off as shrill. (It’s telling that Abramson was working with a management consultant – the 21st century equivalent of charm school – and wept when she heard she was disliked. Sounds as if she was afraid of appearing weak. People are a lot like crabs – crusty shell, soft underbelly.)

What does all this have to do with Shelly Sterling? Plenty as it turns out. Look, I don’t know if the Mrs. was privy to every racist, sexist thought or slumlord act in her husband’s life. But I find it extraordinary that the reaction to her potential leadership of the team is, “Who wants to look at her face, a bad example of plastic surgery.” (There was plenty of blogosphere ridicule of Abramson’s appearance, too.) Or “Well, (Shelly Sterling) can surround herself with good advisers.”

Presumably male, because as we’ve seen from the example of her husband and some of the male owners of other sports teams, they always act wisely, right? And they’re all Apollo Belvederes in the looks department to boot. (The looks thing really gets under my skin. One of the reasons I wrote my current novel ,“Water Music,” about four gay athletes, is because I wanted to make men the objects of beauty for a change.)

Nevertheless, the clichés once again apply. It’s all about female appearances and males taking charge of the wide world. 

And no amount of “leaning in” is apt to change that any time soon.