[Issue 051] Where are the female CEOs?


Women's History Month continues, and I hope you're all finding inspiration from stories of powerful women and in the relationships with the women in your own lives.

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This past weekend I was listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, After the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff. It was the first time I've heard first-hand perspectives on the topic, especially as it directly relates to research.

The idea of the glass ceiling probably isn't news to any of you. It's a metaphor usually used to reference the invisible barriers that women face in gaining access to executive leadership opportunities. It also results in this feeling:

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It also publicly plays out in Corporate America through the tracking of female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list and in the S&P 500.

Last June we hit a record high of 32 female CEOs on the Fortune 500 (or 6.4%) but has since dropped to 24 with several women like HPE’s Meg Whitman transitioning out of their roles. 

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The picture is equally grim when you look at the S&P 500, where only 26 women hold the top position:

  [Source:  Catalyst.org ]

[Source: Catalyst.org]

The glass cliff, on the other hand, refers to the idea that women (and other minorities) are most likely to be offered executive leadership opportunities in times of crisis, when the stakes are much higher and they can be easily blamed when things don't improve. 

In other words, the firm experimented with this nontraditional leader, perhaps trying to signal it was headed in a bold new direction, that it was aggressively going to address performance declines. And if that doesn’t happen, these leaders tend to be blamed and replaced, back to normal — bringing in the white male, typical leader to then navigate the firm out of crisis.
— Dr. Christy Glass

A recent example of this is Ellen Pao's departure from Reddit. She was in and out in less than a year and replaced by a white male.

I did not go in saying, “this is a glass cliff, but if I can do this then like, that’s going to show how excellent of a leader I am. And if I don’t, well — who cares, that was a terrible situation anyway.” I went in thinking I could actually change it.
— Ellen Pao

So the next time someone mentions getting more women "into the pipeline" so we can improve the representation of women on the top of pyramids like the one above, tell them "Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200."

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Then forward them this newsletter, so they can read the articles linked throughout today's issue because it is more important that ever that these kinds of conversations become more nuanced and rooted in research. That is, if we want anything to change.

And be sure to listen to the episode of Freakonomics during your morning commute this week.


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Ava DuVernay Didn't Need Inclusion Riders to Hire a Diverse 'Wrinkle in Time' Team // FORTUNE

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A necessary article to revisit and share this week:
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. // NYTIMES

The Evolution of International Women’s Day as Brands #PressForChange. This year’s #PressForChange theme encouraged brands to forgo flashy campaigns and instead focus on creating programs that can make a lasting impact. // TRIPLE PUNDIT

The Tipping Equation. At restaurants across America, servers calculate how far is too far, weighing harassing behavior against the tips they need to make a living wage. (I love the experience of reading interactive NYT pieces like this one.) // NYTIMES 

Canadian currency will now feature its first Canadian woman. Seventy-two years after Viola Desmond went to jail for sitting in the wrong section of a movie theater, her efforts fighting for civil rights are being recognized. Desmond will soon be the first Canadian woman to appear on her country’s currency. // QUARTZ

Women Are Hard to Find at Top Echelons of Global Central Banks. While former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen broke new ground as the first female holder of that post, analysis of the world’s most prominent developed-economy monetary institutions underlines just how unusual her tenure has been. // BLOOMBERG

‘The backlash is coming’: The global wave of #MeToo. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements might’ve found their start in Hollywood, but they certainly didn’t end there. Read the stories of five women from around the globe who are taking steps to empower other women and bring real change to their communities. // WASHINGTON POST

Rethinking Work-Life Balance for Women of Color. We can’t ignore the unique circumstances of women of color—nor how white women came to have the conversation about work-life balance in the first place. // SLATE


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“I don’t believe a female is ever hired as C.E.O., especially from the outside, for the reasons that she was the absolute number-one pick.”

— Carol Bartz, former Yahoo C.E.O.

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Nikita T. Mitchell