Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate successful women around the world, but also to acknowledge that despite all the advances in some respects, gender inequality still exists and is still a problem. In the grand scheme of things, inequality in big business is not the most pressing issue to be considered, but it is in some ways indicative of how, even when a society pays lip service to equality, bias is still evident.
Around forty percent of U.S. businesses are owned by women, but that number drops dramatically when you look at those in control of big corporations: Only around five percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.
All too often, even those appointments are part of a phenomenon known as the "glass cliff" where women are more likely to be put in charge of corporations with major problems. There are some who hold to the conspiracy theory that this is done deliberately by men in order to point to the immediate failures when somebody is appointed during a downturn in a company’s fortunes, and use that as justification for keeping other men in power.
Often though, it seems to be done out of a sense of desperation: we’ve tried everything else, let’s try a woman.
As insulting as that is, the real lesson when that happens is that despite these obvious disadvantages, women often succeed where those before them have failed.
Mary Barra, for example, was appointed as the first female CEO of GM (GM) in 2013. Some viewed this appointment with suspicion, given that this was a time when the company was still feeling the effects of the recession and fatal problems with ignition switches. On the other hand, Barra was a GM lifer; the kind of executive whose appointment, had she been a man, would have raised no eyebrows at all.
Whatever the motivation, Barra’s time as CEO has been a success, given the cards she was dealt. The company is profitable and, albeit in the context of the normal ups and downs of a car company, has grown under her tenure. Perhaps more importantly, they have accepted the inevitable march to the future and invested heavily in EVs and autonomous vehicles, giving them at least a chance to compete in coming years.
Other high-profile appointments have been less successful. Marissa Mayer was appointed to head Yahoo at a time when the company was in what turned out to be a terminal decline, at least in terms of it as an independent entity. Her inability to halt that decline should not have been particularly surprising, but the coverage of her time in the job all too often showed another problem that female bosses face.
As mentioned above, less than five percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, but twenty percent of a list of the “least likeable” chief executives compiled during Mayer’s term were female, with Mayer herself heading the group. Admittedly that was a small sample size, but the tone of the reporting and some of the quoted comments suggest to me that it is often the men working under a successful woman and their attitudes to that situation are the real problem, not the leaders themselves.
I realize that there is an irony in me, a man, writing on this subject, but if we are to confront it, the issue has to be recognized and publicized, and it is an issue. An argument can be made that women make better leaders than men as they tend to be more empathetic and understanding than men, but that, particularly coming from a man, can sound condescending and even sexist, so let’s just stick to the practical dollars and cents argument.
The many, less publicized successes of female CEOs such as Indra Nooyi at Pepsico (PEP), Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin (LMT), and Safra Catz at Oracle (ORCL), among others, are ample evidence of what should be obvious: women are at least as successful as men as CEOs when given the chance.
I have said many times here that allowing one’s biases, political or otherwise, to influence investing decisions is foolish in the extreme, and that is also true when it comes to businesses investing in their future when they make personnel decisions. When it comes to large public companies appointing CEOs, there is an unwarranted bias against half the world’s population, and that decreases efficiency, performance, and growth in a way that hurts us all, male and female.