The Top Line

May 2, 2014 10:49 pm

Brighter prospects for women seen through glass ceiling

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Study makes optimistic interpretation of dispiriting figures

Here at the Financial Times, we have a close-up view of the corporate glass ceiling in operation. When company chieftains come through London, they often stop by to see the FT, usually with their top public relations person and a couple of other senior executives in tow. Much of the time, the visiting group is entirely male.

This week, Strategy&, the consultancy group formerly known as Booz & Co, published research that backs up our experience and suggests that things may be changing.

Over the past 10 years, 3,026 people have been appointed chief executive at the world’s 2,500 largest public companies. Just 84 of them, or 2.8 per cent, were women. Even that small share is an increase from the group of chief executives they replaced, which included just 56 women. The study also found that female chiefs were significantly more likely to be fired than their male counterparts, with nearly two in five women leaving involuntarily, versus fewer than three in 10 of the men.

The Strategy& authors have come up with an optimistic interpretation of this dispiriting statistic. They believe that boards are so enthusiastic about female candidates that they are taking more risks to appoint them and sometimes the gambles have not paid off.

As evidence, they note that incoming female CEOs are more likely to be outside candidates than their male counterparts. The chances of a bad fit with an outside appointment of either gender are obviously higher. The analysis also shows that weakly performing companies are also more likely to hire outsiders, so more of the female CEOs may be facing difficult turnround jobs. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard are two recent – and so far successful – appointments that fit into that category.

The firing differential may also reflect the overwhelmingly male nature of most corporate boards. Women hold just 17 per cent of board seats in the Fortune 500, 21 per cent in the FTSE 100 and smaller percentages in most other countries, outside Scandinavia.

As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out in her campaign to “Ban Bossy”, girls and women are more likely to face criticism for being assertive and direct than their male counterparts. That dynamic could well lead to disappearing support for women CEOs in the boardroom when corporate times are tough and discussions grow heated.

The firing data also fit quite neatly into the “glass cliff” theory of female leadership first proposed in 2005 by two University of Exeter researchers. It holds that women are more likely to struggle in leadership positions because the ones they are offered are higher risk and more contentious. Follow-up research has found that male recruiters tend to prefer male candidates for low-risk positions.

Still, the Strategy& analysts remain optimistic about the prospects for female leadership. They argue that if current hiring trends continue, by 2040, as many as one-third of incoming CEOs will be female. Surely by then, the plum jobs will be more equally shared.

brooke.masters@ft.com

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