Where Are the Women CEOs?

In business and in politics, few women have made it to the top—none in politics in the United States, as seen with Hillary Clinton’s recent loss in the 2016 presidential race. And Catalyst reports that the percentage of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has been stuck at 5 percent for a very long time. Why has there been so little progress? One factor explaining the dearth of female CEOs is described by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times as the phenomenon of the glass cliff. The concept of the glass cliff, coined in 2005 by two professors at Exeter University in the United Kingdom, posits that “women are often placed in positions of power when the situation is dire, men are uninterested and the likelihood of success is low.” Bennhold gives the example of the election of Theresa May to prime minister of the United Kingdom right after the Brexit vote, which put her immediately into a lose-lose situation where her chances of success were very low. Bennhold goes on to note that all the men responsible for Brexit “stabbed each other soundly in the back” and ran away. Julie Creswell writes that researchers at Utah State University also report that women are more likely to be promoted to the top job of troubled companies and then “[lack] the support or authority” to make necessary changes. In other words, women are less likely to succeed in glass cliff appointments, and their tenure is often shorter because they are under conditions detrimental to success. Susan Chira of the New York Times describes other factors that contribute to the low number of female CEOs, based on interviews she conducted with dozens of senior women who competed to be CEOs but did not succeed. These women concluded that the barriers for women are “more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe.” They reported these barriers:

  • Women are not seen as visionary.
  • Women are less comfortable with self-promotion and more likely to be criticized (and villainized) when they do grab the spotlight—and they are often perceived as unlikeable.
  • Men continue to be threatened by assertive women.
  • Women are disproportionately penalized for stumbles.
  • Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive and can be caught off guard by the ruthlessness of competition at the top. One executive explained, “Women are prey . . . They [men] can smell it in the water, that women are not going to play the same game. Those men think, ‘If I kick her, she’s not going to kick back, but the men will. So I’ll go after her.’”
This latter point may also explain research from Utah State University, as reported by Creswell, showing that female CEOs are 34 percent more likely to be targeted by an activist investor who forces them out. A study from Arizona State University found that, out of all chief executive appointments from 2003 to 2013, one in four women-led companies were attacked by activist investors. What can be done? Chira notes that Deborah Gillis, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst, says that it’s not enough for leaders and boards to pay lip service to valuing diversity and advancing women and minorities. They need to put their money where their mouth is by withholding bonuses from leaders if they do not promote women and minorities and increasing bonuses if they do. They must also continue to grow the number of women on corporate boards. More women are seriously considered for CEO appointments when women are board members. Without these efforts, the deck is stacked against women getting the chance to demonstrate leadership from the top.   Image courtesy of businessforward (CC BY 2.0)]]>