The perception that high-achieving businesswomen are more vulnerable than their male counterparts to being abruptly fired – pushed off the "glass cliff" in the contemporary corporate vernacular – has been borne out by a new study from a global management consultancy.
Researchers at Strategy&, formerly known as Booz & Company, found that women are forced out of chief executive positions more than a third of the time, while only a quarter of men in similar positions suffer the same fate.
The precarious position of women in the highest echelons of power – illustrated last week by the dramatic departures of Jill Abramson and Natalie Nougayrède as the editors of the New York Times and Le Monde – remains a stubborn fact of corporate life.
According to the authors of the 2013 Chief Executive Study, women's higher rate of failure is not because they are placed in more challenging roles or set up to fail. The research looked at CEO turnover over the past decade at the top of the world's 2,500 largest public companies and found that, while women represent only 3% of new CEOs, they are often forced out of top jobs sooner.
The report finds that men and women are broadly comparable in every area –except one: "Women are more often outsiders," says co-author Ken Favaro. "So they're more vulnerable. They don't know the organisation. They can't diagnose the problems as quickly and don't understand the culture or how to get it to work for them – and they aren't necessarily given more time to deliver."
While the proportion of women in the CEO class has doubled to nearly 4% in the past five years, a figure that the study's authors believe could rise to 33% by 2040, the sex norms of global corporate leadership remain stubbornly hard to shift.
With a smaller internal leadership pool to choose from, companies hiring female executives from outside are also likely to be less tolerant of shortcomings than they are with executives groomed in-house. And external CEOs are seven times more likely to be dismissed after a short tenure.
"We tend to like those that are most like us," says Favaro. "Sadly, company boards are still mostly men, and they're more inclined to pull the trigger on women if things aren't working out. Women are treated more harshly by men because there are more men in the boardroom." As long as this lasts, he adds, "women will be at a disadvantage".
Last week, after claims that Abramson was paid significantly less than her male predecessor at the New York Times had been challenged by the owning Sulzberger family, reasons for her dismissal fell back on cliches no less likely to cause offence. Abramson was described as "bossy" – a term that, at least in the US, is loaded with sexist hostility. On Saturday afternoon, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr released a statement detailing his decision to fire Abramson and responding to the growing controversy that gender played a role in her dismissal. He said a pattern of behaviour that included "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues" was behind her dismissal.
Earlier this year Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg launched a campaign to stamp out "bossy", claiming that it discourages young women from developing leadership skills. "I'm not bossy. I'm the boss," announced Beyoncé in one of Sandberg's anti-bossy TV adverts. The same issue appears to have brought down Nougayrède, who had covered the Chechen wars for Le Monde before being forced out by a staff insurrection at the paper.
Faced with such treatment, many female CEOs are choosing to not go quietly over the glass cliff. In 2009, Carol Bartz became chief executive of Yahoo!, but her appointment was viewed less as a victory for women than as evidence that women are more willing to accept positions at companies with no future – and then take the fall. After Bartz was fired two years later, she characterised Yahoo!'s board as "doofuses" who "fucked me over".
While the authors of Strategy&'s report refuse to comment specifically on the saga at the New York Times, Favaro believes that Abramson's experience at the paper was "not inconsistent" with its findings: "She wasn't given a whole lot of time to develop her track record and earn her tenure."
Gary Neilson, another co-author of the report, believes the data, though thin, shows an improving situation. While women may be forced out of companies faster, they are coming in faster than they are going out. Neilson believes that as companies start to do a better job of developing internal female executive talent, they will be less likely to look outside to fill top positions. That, in turn, will reduce the risk that women are taking top jobs at companies that may already be in crisis, experiencing performance problems or be in transition.
In 20 years this is all going to be quite different, says Neilsen. As more women move up the corporate ladder and sit on boards, companies will have a stable source of homegrown talent.
"The data is clear – being an outsider is a tough situation," he says. Companies care about performance, their boards are under pressure, so they need to be doing a better job developing female talent internally. The situation is, he says, improving rapidly – "but from a very small base".
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010