carol bartz

Women chief executives are significantly more likely to be fired than their male counterparts, research has found – partly because some companies feel pressured into making higher-risk appointments.

A study of the 2,500 largest public companies by market value found that, over the past 10 years, fewer than three in 10 male chief executives were ousted, while almost two in five female bosses had to quit – a difference of more than 10 percentage points.

High-profile female casualties include Carol Bartz (above), who was dismissed as chief executive of Yahoo in 2011 following investor dissatisfaction over the performance of the internet group, and Anne Lauvergeon, who was replaced as head of French nuclear champion Areva as the French government strengthened its hold on the group’s management.

Per-Ola Karlsson, co-author of the study by Strategy&, the consultancy formerly known as Booz and Co, cited two main causes for the higher proportion of women forced out of office.

He said one was the “benefit of the doubt factor”. Partly because of cultural and political pressures in some countries, companies were often keen to appoint a female candidate to a top role – so much so that they were prepared to make a bolder choice, which stood a higher chance of going wrong.

“Companies may, on balance, take on a bit more risk because they do want to have a woman chief executive, and in some cases that risk was real,” Mr Karlsson noted.

He said the second reason for the higher proportion of women who left abruptly was that the boardroom culture remains overwhelmingly male.

“From having spoken with many women in senior places, it is a difficult environment to work in, and not everyone is invariably supportive,” he said.

Women made up only 3 per cent of the new chief executive appointments at the companies in the study in 2013, down from 4.2 per cent in the previous year. But Strategy& forecasts that changing social pressures, and the increasing presence of women in higher education and senior business roles will result in one-third of incoming chief executives being female in 2040.

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