Should CEOs Be Prepped to Handle Gender-Sensitivity Issues?

Do a Google search on the term “CEO” and you’ll likely get dozens of stories about male CEOs who said or did the wrong thing when it comes to women. From straight up impropriety to something as simple as a speech with a poorly placed word, the seemingly increased frequency of these issues has caused HR executives everywhere to wonder, should their CEOs be receiving training in how to handle sensitive issues? And should boards have stronger ethics guidelines for these types of situations?

One recent episode involving a big-company CEO illustrated that tired patterns of sexism can still predominate in the corner office. Johnson Controls fired a long-time consultant to the company, a psychologist, after CEO Alex Molinaroli admitted to an affair with her—but the board took no action against him after determining that “no conflicts of interest occurred,” according to a statement. The giant auto-parts producer and climate-controls company did increase oversight, however, by elevating its CFO, Bruce McDonald, to vice chairman. The move, which may have had multiple reasons behind it, nonetheless serves as an implicit maneuver by the board to ensure that this type of situation—which may negatively affect the brand—does not happen again.

“Should boards have stronger ethics guidelines for sensitive issues?”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella kicked off a mini-controversy recently by urging women to count on corporate pay equity to give them “the right raises” as they go along, though he later noted that he supports efforts to boost the number and roles of women in technology. Later he rallied to explain further his comments, and while exonerating his thinking, Nadella’s elaboration underscored how CEOs can suffer from blind spots on issues of gender sensitivity.

Nadella has noted in recent days, post-gaffe, that for the same title, women and men at Microsoft are within “a tight band of 0.5 percent” in pay disparity. But he conceded that “the question of velocity of promotions, of whether there are enough women and minorities in senior ranks,” is current at the company. And while women represent 29% of Microsoft’s 100,000 or so employees, only 17% of engineers are women.

Nadella also elaborated on why he said at an event on October 9 that women at Microsoft shouldn’t ask for raises “because that’s good karma” and to let the system take care of them. “I answered by my own experience of how I managed my career,” he told USA Today.

No matter how experienced, CEOs are human, and will make verbal mistakes. The key is to always be sure about your response, and confident you can back up your statements. Public apologies in certain situations can help CEOs to improve their reputation after a gaffe, but adding sensitivity training to leadership development programs might save some CEOs from regretful moments altogether.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events