Opinion

Women as Bosses Still Face Bias

Victoria L. Brescoll & Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld — February 2014

In a New York Times op-ed, Professors Victoria Brescoll and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld write about the gender bias and discrimination that persist for powerful women in corporate America.

Originally published in the New York Times on February 21, 2014.

Marissa Mayer. Indra Nooyi. Virginia Rometty. Mary T. Barra.

That list may seem small, but it is noteworthy that 4.2% of our largest public corporations are now led by women, including iconic enterprises like Yahoo, PepsiCo, IBM and General Motors. In fact, women now make up 14 percent of top officers in corporate America and 18 percent of board seats.

That’s the good news. But what does that really mean when an insidious undertone of sexism pervades the conversation?

Are female leaders held to different standards? Jim Cramer of CNBC has asked if it is coincidence that the corporate raider Nelson Peltz has gone after such major firms as PepsiCo, DuPont and Mondelez, which all happened to be led by woman transforming those enterprises.

When Ms. Mayer of Yahoo said that she had fired her chief operating officer and admitted that his hiring was a mistake, analysts and headlines declared that the honeymoon was over for the “internet sweetheart.” Never mind that her company’s stock is up 150% in the 18 months that she has been on the job (as the fifth chief executive in five years), or that Yahoo continues to get more desktop traffic than Google, Microsoft, or Facebook and has undertaken a graphic overhaul and acquisitions like Tumblr. (In fairness, some of Yahoo’s stock increase is ascribed to the jump in value of its stake in the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba.)

The sudden departure of Yahoo’s chief operating officer opened the door to questions about lingering problems with Yahoo’s email service and, worst of all, Ms. Mayer’s glamorous appearance and personal humility. Allowing herself to be photographed upside down while reclining on a chaise longue for an August Vogue magazine led to a tidal wave of derision that is still the most cited issue in web searches of her six months later.

Moreover, her comments in the Vogue piece—including, “It’s not like I had a grand plan where I weighed all the pros and cons of what I wanted to do”—were criticized by Charlotte Alter, a writer for Time, who argued that the issue was not, “Is it feminist for a powerful woman to pose for a fashion magazine?” but rather that Ms. Mayer did not “own up to her own ambition.”

“Her reticence is irksome. She is one of only 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500,” Ms. Alter wrote. “Doesn’t she owe it to us to tell us how she got there?”

By contrast, consider a 1981 Fortune magazine profile of a dozen male chief executives by Daniel Seligman. It was called “Luck and Careers,” suggesting that serendipity rather than political maneuvering was the key to success. Taking a similar tack is David Novak, the chief executive of Yum Brands, whose 2009 book about his life is called, “The Education of an Accidental C.E.O.”

Carol Bartz, one of Ms. Mayer’s predecessors at Yahoo, failed to be the turnaround leader the board sought, is most remembered for using an epithet during a TechCrunch interview. Never mind that when male chief executives like Robert Crandall of American Airlines; Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines; Ken Langone, co-founder of the Home Depot; Jim Hagedorn of Scotts Miracle Gro; and even former Vice President Dick Cheney are often applauded for their equally colorful language.

Research out of Yale has found that this kind of behavior—ignoring and even rewarding male leaders’ anger, but punishing women when they display even small amounts of anger—is widely accepted by the public. Men are less often punished for such conduct, but they are actually seen as more deserving of power, status, and higher salaries. By contrast, women who show even mild forms of anger are often viewed as emotionally “out of control” and are less likely to be hired and advanced to higher positions within their firms.

Take Lynn Tilton, the chief executive of Patriarch Partners, a veteran of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs who has helped restructure many leveraged buyouts throughout her career. At Patriarch, she has led a private equity firm that brought cast-off firms in dying mill towns back to life, including brands like MD Helicopters, Rand McNally and Dura Automotive Systems. Together, the firm’s portfolio companies are worth over $8 billion and have saved an estimated 250,000 jobs in the United States.

But when one disgruntled employee who had fabricated his résumé was fired, he started a demeaning campaign, inventing unverified incidents that were published in a dozen malicious pieces online. And he used the most vile, misogynist terms, aiming his vitriol at her edgy fashion and direct, assertive style. When he later recanted in court, the published pieces went uncorrected.

Noting the particular harshness of female reporters who have covered her, Ms. Tilton said this week, “Women’s status in the world will change when women are kind to each other. Then, men may catch on.”

All these examples validate the academic research that repeatedly shows how, despite women’s dramatic movement into leadership roles and occupations previously only held by men, gender biases, and discrimination against powerful women have persisted. Countless studies have found that Americans, men and women alike, still endorse gender stereotypes, even for men and women in powerful positions.

Not surprisingly, one study, which surveyed 461 women at the vice president level or above at Fortune 1000 companies, found that these leaders viewed “stereotypes and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities” as a major barrier to their advancement in their companies.

Women are still caught in a double bind where they struggle to navigate the requirements of their feminine gender role expectations and yet still prove to others that they are assertive and competent (i.e., masculine) enough to lead others.

In a variation of the old Virginia Slims cigarette advertisements that encouraged women’s freedom to smoke in public, we might now say, “We’ve come a long way—maybe.” It’s been a long way from the practically nonexistent numbers of women in powerful positions in American corporations only a few decades ago. But now that women are making headway into the most powerful positions in corporate America, they still face a distracting wall of biased judges.