As Marissa Mayer prepares to float away from Yahoo with her $23 million golden parachute payment, the spotlight is again on struggling women CEOs of major companies.
But while Mayer joins the likes of Carly Fiorina, who used to run Hewlett-Packard, and ex-Avon chief Andrea Jung on the list of famous female flops in the business world, this doesn’t mean the big corporate leadership jobs are beyond the powers of women.
It’s just that there are so few of them in chief executive positions that every mistake and crazy high compensation package gets magnified in the media glare. As a result, female leaders are held to a higher standard.
When was the last time a male CEO got the boot and the firm’s struggles were based on his gender? That’s right. Never.
Women only hold a paltry 4.2 percent of chief executive positions with America’s Fortune 500 companies, running just 21 of those firms. Women in the U.S. hold 52 percent of all professional-level jobs but lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions.
“These statistics seem to show that women are held to different if not more demanding standards than men,” said Jeremy Donovan, author of the American Management Association study “Women Fortune 500 CEOs: Held to Higher Standards.” That same study found those female chief executives have earned more rigorous academic degrees than many men on the list, have greater work and life experience when first appointed, and more often worked their way up internally.
That paucity of women in senior leadership positions means that each time a top businesswoman screws up it can have a damaging wider effect in society, according to Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. “It not only can damage her career just individually for herself,” she told NPR. “It can actually serve to reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren’t quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions.”
Those beliefs are confirmed by a study from the Pew Research Center showing that 43 percent of Americans surveyed put the small number of female CEOs down to the fact that women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts.
Among the high profile setbacks was the departure of Andrea Jung as Avon Products CEO in 2012 following a string of problems after a lot of initial success. The company’s stock had dropped 45 percent. The latest earnings report stated that sales targets would be unattainable and disclosed that there were two ongoing SEC inquiries. Meanwhile a probe into alleged bribery of foreign officials has already caused the dismissal of four Avon executives. She is now President and CEO of Grameen America, a nonprofit which provides microfinance loans to individuals and small businesses.
Another was Carly Fiorina who was forced out as CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 2005 after HP shares sank more than 50 percent during her watch. A $21 million payoff served to soften the blow and set her up for a run at the political big time. But after failing to win the Republic nomination for the presidency in 2016 she is now focusing on Carly Fiorina Enterprises, a business and charitable foundation.
The latest female casualty of the C-Suite is Marisa Mayer who was seen as a Silicon Valley genius at first but fell from grace when significant increases in company value failed to materialize. There were staff rumblings about indecision and micro-management and then the press piled on with a typically negative recent write up coming when The Chicago Tribune claimed she received “awfully good pay for doing an awful job.” Now with the company’s purchase by Verizon, she has an awfully lofty termination payout of $23 million.
What’s encouraging is that there have been a number of high-profile female CEO hires in recent years, such as Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson and General Motors’ Mary Barra, the first woman to ever be CEO of a major auto maker.
The fact they are among the top female leaders quietly and effectively getting on with their jobs does not make as many headlines as the women who fail.
But the number of female chief executives is way too low in view of the talents and motivations of women knocking at and breaking the glass ceiling in corporate America. “We didn’t get to these jobs without being fearless and courageous at the same time as being good at what we do,” former Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter told CNN.
Corporate culture remains male dominated, especially in leadership positions. As the American Management Association’s Jeremy Donovan concludes in his report, “There’s so much organizations can and need to do to improve the prospects for women to succeed and advance.”
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