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Women in management learn to listen for frequencies that are inaudible to male ears. When I was running a section of this newspaper, a management consultant once told me that I seemed irritable. Was irritability my leadership style?

Yes, I should have told him, I was irritated by patronizing management consultants. My very competent (male) deputy was not asked about his level of tetchiness. I doubt any man would be.

"Irritable." "Polarizing." "Brusque." "Bitchy." Only one of those was aimed at me. The others were adjectives used to describe Jill Abramson, forced out of her job as executive editor of The New York Times this week. How about "authoritarian" and "Putin-like"? Those were the criticisms of Natalie Nougayrède, just ousted as the first female editor of the influential French newspaper Le Monde. That last criticism hurts; I'm not sure even Vladimir Putin wants to be described as "Putin-like."

Two pioneering women, the first in their roles, gone in the same week. Two women deemed too bossy to be bosses. Can we extrapolate from their experiences? Probably not, because two is a tiny sample size. If there were more women executives in the media, we would know – but there aren't. (Technically, Ms. Nougayrède resigned after a revolt by the newsroom journalists who chose her, but there is no doubt she walked the plank with a cutlass at her back.)

In the absence of much concrete information about Ms. Abramson's departure, rumours have been swirling – chief among them that she clashed with her boss, Arthur O. Sulzberger, and that she was annoyed (irritated, perhaps) to discover she wasn't making as much money as predecessor Bill Keller. The Times has denied these allegations, but Ken Auletta and The New Yorker have published figures that seem to back up the claim. Ms. Abramson hired a lawyer to look into the discrepancies, Mr. Auletta wrote, which stuck her bosses as "especially combative."

Combative: There's another loaded word. It's fine if you're a soldier, I suppose, but not a quality you want in a female executive. Consider this observation, from a story on women's failure to negotiate better salaries for themselves: "Discrimination persists in the workplace and it isn't necessarily intentional or overt, experts on gender and negotiation say. But it can emerge when women act in ways that aren't considered sufficiently feminine, and when women advocate for themselves." That story appeared in The New York Times, less than two months before Ms. Abramson was fired. It's too bad she can't live on irony.

Unfeminine: There's another good word to add to the box – perhaps later we can throw away the key. Women who aspire to leadership roles must be as wise and competent as their male colleagues, but on top of that, they must be genial and warm, because likeability is still the coin women are meant to spend. Managing a newsroom just makes it worse – journalists can be as ornery as cats woken in mid-nap, and they'll scratch if not petted the right way.

Perhaps this exhausting juggling act explains why there are so few women executives in newspapers: Just 10 per cent of the highest posts in Canada are held by women, according to a 2006 survey, and 23 per cent in the United States (the U.S. figure covers TV and radio, too).

Forty years after a group of heroic female employees launched a discrimination suit against The New York Times, women in newspapers still make, on average, just 83 per cent of men's wages. Back then, star Times financial reporter Eileen Shanahan discovered she was making substantially less than male reporters who were half as good. She asked for a raise, but was told she was making the union rate, "and that's enough for her." That's enough for her: Hard to believe the ink hasn't faded on that message after four decades.

We think sexism is dead in the newsroom and elsewhere, but just because it's harder to see doesn't mean it's not there. This is one of the themes of Vivian Smith's forthcoming book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers. "Look at Jill Abramson," says Ms. Smith, a former Globe and Mail reporter. "Let's say she was very direct. So what? Isn't that a quality you want in an editor-in-chief?"

One top editor at a Canadian paper told her, "That's haunted me forever, that we can't be leaders and women." Young reporters and editors told Ms. Smith that they didn't see a way to climb through the ranks that made sense, because there were so few women to show the way.

Now there are two fewer. Ms. Abramson is gone after less than three years, and Ms. Nougayrède after just a year. Two women who did not plunder the treasure chest, steer their ships onto the rocks or grow senile at the wheel. Instead, their crimes seem to exist in charting their own paths by their own rules. And that route, apparently, is too dangerous. Feel free to be irritated.