When male founders and CEOs flounder in their position or see their companies struggle, few blame the trouble on their gender. But all bets appear to be off if the beleaguered CEO is a female—such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, whose company was sold to Verizon, and Elizabeth Holmes, founder of experimental blood testing operation Theranos, whom regulators have banished from that company’s laboratories for the next two years.
A paucity of female CEOs, especially in the technology sector, may indeed foster stereotypes when a woman at the top messes up, according to Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. “It not only can damage her career just individually for herself,” Cooper told NPR. “It can actually serve to reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren’t quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions.”
A survey by the Pew Research Center, reported in The Wall Street Journal, lends credence to this assertion. Although the vast majority of Americans believe women and men are equally capable of serving as top corporate leaders, 43% of study participants attributed the small number of female CEOs in the U.S. to the fact that women are held to higher standards than their male counterparts.
“The idea that women had to do more to prove themselves, interestingly, outweighed character traits or family decisions,” Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew, told the Journal. This potential roadblock “is harder to pinpoint and could be harder to overcome.”
Similarly, research from Arizona State University (ASU) reports that female CEOs are far more likely to be pressured and second-guessed by shareholders than men occupying the same leadership position. In a paper entitled, “The Glare of the Spotlight: Female Leadership and Shareholder Activism,” Christine Shropshire, associate professor of management at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, noted that a disproportionate amount of shareholder activism at Fortune 1000 companies studied was aimed at companies with women in charge.
Shropshire looked at shareholder resolutions in a matched sample of firms expected to differ only by CEO gender—such variables as industry, performance, size, and the like were nearly identical. “Controlling for other reasons investors target certain firms, our models show that gender alone explains significant activism specifically toward female CEOs,” she wrote in the paper. “All else held equal, female CEOs have a 27% likelihood of facing activism, while their male counterparts have a near zero predicted likelihood of being targeted.”
Shropshire also speculated that one reason women come under fire is activist investors’ belief that they will be able to sway or bully these executives more easily than would be possible if a man were sitting in their place.
Still, NPR said, neither stereotypes nor double-standards seem to be keeping back some leaders in the technology sector. Consider Xerox’s Ursula Burns. And while serving as CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman, who now heads up HP Enterprise, helped to build the former into an e-commerce powerhouse. And let’s not forget Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM.
These women serve as excellent mentors and examples for other women who aspire to achieve the corner office, and their success shows that roadblocks can be removed.