Tough at the top for women bosses

By on September 10, 2014

Female CEOs are often judged differently – and more harshly – than male ones. So what can they do to stop their careers going up in flames?

Whispered rumours abound: women leaders are more likely to get kicked out than men. Survey the bodies. Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Natalie Nougayrede, editor-in-chief of French newspaper Le Monde, are the most recent victims. They follow a host of familiar names from the corporate world: HP’s Carly Fiorina, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz, Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll.

Strategy&, the consultancy created out of Booz & Company when PWC took it over, has jumped in to add some allegedly empirical fuel. Three of its menfolk have found it is true: women CEOs are more likely to get fired than men – 38% to 27% over the past 10 years. But, crucially, it also found that people who move between companies and industries are more likely to lose their jobs and that women are more likely to come from outside than men.

Strategy& can’t or won’t provide a breakdown of this number and, when you press them, the charming women presenting the report admit they’ve never seen the raw data. After a few weeks of pushing, the answer squeaks out. The data is ‘directional’ – wonk-speak for ‘not conclusive’; the sample set of women CEOs is so minuscule that there is no statistically valid proof. So it may be true. Or it may just be a great headline.

But let’s suppose there is something in it. Women who have worked their damnedest to smash through the reinforced glass ceiling and get to the top are easily pushed back down again. What might have helped? What do you need to know to keep yourself safe? There are some clear themes, none of them easy.

The first is not to be naive when you get offered that big job. Whenever companies decide to appoint an outsider, they insist that they would never appoint a leader based on anything other than competence; they’ll only hire the very best person for the job. Uh huh. But the chance to look ‘more progressive’ or ‘more diverse’ is just so tempting when companies feel they need to do something very different.

One global CEO admitted – off the record – that his company had chosen a woman to head a region in order to send a ‘signal’, despite the fact that it wasn’t 100% sure of her suitability for the role. It’s now suffering the consequences, says the discreet CEO, and trying to work out how to fire her without falling foul of the discrimination laws.

Ann Francke, CEO of CMI, points to the example of Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard and observes that some top jobs are poisoned chalices. In a really tough situation, it may be that the pipeline is narrow as the best talent has already left, or things may be so bad that none of the obvious insiders wants the job. Francke says that in those circumstances, women can be pushed out early in favour of a ‘white, male saviour’, who may then ‘succeed’ by reaping the benefits of changes instigated by his predecessor.

Strategy&’s report does have the data to prove that your survival odds are dramatically improved if you become CEO of the company you’ve grown up in – as Mary Barra (GM), Ursula Burns (Xerox) and Ginni Rometty (IBM) have done. But, even then, there are no guarantees: after four months in post, there were already whispers in the blogosphere that Barra’s job was under threat.

Once you get the gig, you’re much more visible than a man would be. This may help you in lots of ways but, just like granny told you, today’s peacocks are tomorrow’s feather dusters. Be very wary of courting too much attention. Lifestyle interviews and glossy photo shoots are unlikely to win the love of your wider team, who may see you as a show-off and subtly – or not – withhold their support.

Take Cynthia Carroll, who was dramatically ditched as CEO of FTSE 100 mining giant Anglo American in October 2012. Variously described as an ‘outsider’, ‘blonde’, ‘petite’, ‘unknown’, Carroll was the subject of an explosion of media coverage no male boss would have attracted. She led a strategy of simplification and safety, changing the ground rules for the industry, and was pushed out by spooked investors when the share price dropped. Since her departure it has fallen another 20%.

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer has graced Vogue, Newton Asset Management’s Helena Morrissey featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has appeared in Vanity Fair. While they remain firmly in post, their profile has won them vicious personal attacks from both inside and outside their own organisations. It may not matter in the good times, but in a tough fight, it might.

Next, watch out for the unvoiced expectations – from men and women – that as a woman you’ll be caring, collaborative and kind. But also a visionary leader who can make tough decisions. A demanding combination.

I can’t count the number of women bosses who have been described as bitches in the writing of this piece: even my best friend launched into the head of her NHS trust, calling her a stupid cow, ‘a former nurse’ and admitting: ‘I don’t know why it matters she’s a woman – we’d hate a man too – but it does.’

In her work, Heather McGregor (aka Mrs Moneypenny), managing director of executive search firm Taylor Bennett, is acutely sensitive to unconscious bias towards women leaders. ‘People expect them to be more inclusive, perhaps more caring, and are shocked if they are not. If someone tells me a woman was fired because of dissent in the ranks, I apply a discount factor. Women are judged harshly for toughness.’

Jill Abramson won handfuls of Pulitzers but struggled to turn the NYT behemoth around (Its last results showed profits down 54%). But she was as tough and uncompromising as she had always been. Reports describe her as unpopular, uncaring, detached and condescending. We will never know if a man who behaved in the same way would have been treated similarly.

But, as another CEO put it, could Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco have done what he did and in the style he did it if he was a woman? This generation of female leaders have had to be tough and determined to get those jobs. A man who runs the diversity group at a mid-sized City firm says their most senior women have made it through ‘sheer force of will’ and ‘don’t always make aspirational role models. At the most extreme, an invitee recently described two speakers at one of our events as hatchet-faced bitches’.

A more diplomatic interpretation might be that one survival strategy to make it in an alpha-male world is to conceal your vulnerability and present yourself as icy cold or brutally tough, which won’t make you many allies.

Back to Heather McGregor, who grounds it in purpose. ‘CEOs need to deliver the strategy and the P&L. To do this they need to carry people with them. There can be a perception that tough women are less able to take people with them. But that is not true. There are brilliant, inclusive women leaders out there. Look at Indra Nooyi, Dido Harding, Angela Ahrendts and Harriet Green.’

And there, it seems, lies the answer: whatever else you do as a leader, you have to figure out how to take people with you, especially if you’re a woman. If you don’t, you’ll pay the price.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply