Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were
It’s not a pipeline problem. It’s about loneliness, competition and deeply rooted barriers.
By SUSAN CHIRA
Jul 21 2017
A year ago, dressed in suffragette white and addressing a cheering, weeping convention, Hillary Clinton stood for possibility. Now she is a reminder of the limits women continue to confront — in politics and beyond.
More than 40 years after women began pouring into the workplace, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate America. The percentage of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies who are women just passed 6 percent, creeping up (and occasionally dropping back) at a glacial pace.
Why don’t more women get that No. 1 job?
Consider the experiences of the people who know best: Women who were in the running to become No. 1, but didn’t quite make it. The women who had to stop at No. 2.
What their stories show is that in business, as in politics, women who aspire to power evoke far more resistance, both overt and subtle, than they expected would be the case by now.
The impact of gender is hard to pin down decisively. But after years of biting their tongues, believing their ranks would swell if they simply worked hard, many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe, according to interviews with nearly two dozen chief executives, would-be chief executives, headhunters, business school deans and human resources professionals.
What they say: Women are often seen as dependable, less often as visionary. Women tend to be less comfortable with self-promotion — and more likely to be criticized when they do grab the spotlight. Men remain threatened by assertive women. Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive. Some women get discouraged and drop out along the way. And many are disproportionately penalized for stumbles.
“For years I thought it was a pipeline question,” said Julie Daum, who has led efforts to recruit women for corporate boards at Spencer Stuart. “But it’s not — I’ve been watching the pipeline for 25 years. There is real bias, and without the ability to shine a light on it and really measure it, I don’t think anything’s going to change. 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.”
Jan Fields worked her way from crew member at a McDonald’s restaurant to become president of McDonald’s USA, the No. 2 position at the company. She was fired in 2012, blamed for the first monthly drop in profits since 2003 during a strategic push for higher prices. From her perspective, she was making bold changes necessary for the company’s survival; McDonald’s has struggled in recent years amid increasing consumer consciousness about health.
She’s blunt about the life of a woman near the top.
“You’re the only woman,” she said. “It’s very lonely. I was at a high level playing in a golf foursome with all high-level men. One said, ‘I didn’t know you knew how to play.’ I said, ‘You never asked me.’ I never drank with them. I never tried to be one of the guys. I spent more energy on performance.”
In the end, she said, she won over many of the men. “The men along the way, they were extremely jealous and competitive,” she said. “It didn’t really last that long because they saw my production, and when they did start to work for me, they realized, ‘She was not that bad.’ ”
Like many women who became senior executives, she said she rose fastest and most smoothly when she was measured by the straightforward metric of profits. “It’s really all about money,” she said. “I always had to do better than anybody else to be considered equal. I ran great restaurants, had great profits and had the most successful people working for me.”
One handicap to becoming the chief executive, she said, was her own choice not to work overseas. “I thought so many of the countries we were going into were so against women,” she said. “I thought, I don’t need that.”
But after three years in the No. 2 spot, she and her boss disagreed about strategy. She pushed hard for changes, as she said many women in her place have done. “That’s how come I’m gone,” she said.
When women act forcefully, research suggests, men are more likely to react badly. A Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey in 2016 of 132 companies and 34,000 employees found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30 percent more likely than men to be labeled intimidating, bossy or aggressive.