Aug 1, 2017

Why women get to No. 2 but are still rarely named CEO

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Only about 6% of the Fortune 500 are led by women CEOs, and a persistent question — a half-century after the stirrings of the modern women's movement — is why there are not more. Stubborn barriers impede the way even when when men in positions of power genuinely think they want to promote women to the top, per the NYT's Susan Chira.

Worth reading to the end: In a long piece, Chira notably interviews only women either one step removed from the top, at No. 2, or who actually reached the pinnacle of their organization, including some of America's most powerful businesswomen. The approach eliminates "a lot of the noise surrounding why aren't there more women at the top. Because they are already at the top. It's not that they supposedly weren't ambitious," says Jody Miller, the CEO of Business Talent Group, speaking to Axios.

Among Chira's reveals:

  • After a woman reaches the C-suite, "the next rungs of the ladder depend ... on prevailing in an environment where everyone is competing for a chance at the top job," a rough-and-tumble game at which males don't care much about who gets bruised. Male rivals will attack women executives, because, unlike other men, they often don't kick back.
  • Ellen Kullman, the former CEO of DuPont, says, "We are never taught to fight for ourselves. I think we tend to be brought up thinking that life's fair, that you thrive and deliver, and the rest will take care of itself. It actually does work for most of your career. It doesn't work for that last couple of steps."
  • Ultimately the dynamic is power, not gender: "When you are talking about a job as coveted and hard to get as CEO, the dynamics of power are as important as anything," Miller tells Axios.

Many of the findings do not seem much changed from decades ago, among them:

  • "Women are often seen as dependable, less often as visionary."
  • "Men remain threatened by assertive women."
  • "Some women get discouraged and drop out along the way. And many are disproportionately penalized for stumbles."

The gladiator ring: Recruiter Julie Daum says, "Ultimately at the top of an organization there are fewer and fewer spots, and if you can eliminate an entire class of people, it makes it easier." And Sally Blount, dean at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, says, "I used to love the word 'gravitas.' I now think it's male code for 'not like us' at the highest levels."

Chira writes, "Many men ... sincerely believe they want women to advance," but then erect barriers preventing that outcome:

  • Some of the women "describe a culture in which men sometimes feel hesitant to give women honest but harsh feedback, which can be necessary for them to ascend, because they fear women may react emotionally."
  • Dina Dublon, former CFO at JPMorgan Chase, "said male colleagues sometimes told her they were reluctant to have dinner or drinks with female subordinates — important bonding activities in the corporate world — because it might be seen as flirtatious."

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