What’s wrong with women?

I love women. We all love women. Lord Davies wants us to make sure we have at least 25% of them at every party. Martha Lane Fox wants more than that. Viviane Reding wants even more still, and wants to enforce it with a 40% quota backed by European Law. I am of course talking about Women on Boards.

Viviane Reding

As discussed last month, Women on Boards are a vital part of developing business, the economy and arguably, the country. There is one overriding challenge which many still do not ‘get’ – Supply. There simply aren’t the women to go around, but if there is one thing that increased focus will bring, it is to assist that cause.

However, much as we are seeing more women enter the professional world, and more women progressing through the layers of management en route to the top, there is an issue. Once there, an increasing number are leaving. Are we seeking to fill the bath tub whilst leaving the plug out?

Last month we highlighted the staggering news that the number of Lord Davies’ large company female directors had not increased at all this year. That has since got worse, a lot worse….led from the very top.

The number of female CEOs has dramatically decreased. In the past month, the first ever female FTSE-100 CEO, Dame Marjorie Scardino has stepped down from Pearson PLC  after 15 years; Kate Swann has announced her departure from WHSmith after 9 years, and just today, Cynthia Carrollhas announced her departure from Anglo American after 6 years at the helm.

Cynthia Carroll

Additionally, one of the highest profile FTSE-100 CEOs in waiting, Liz Doherty from Reckitt Benckiser, has announced her departure. Even the fantastic Angela Arendts at Burberry has faced pressure following warnings of lower than expected profits after a 4 year-low performance. Only Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco seems to have had clear water.

So why have three very high-profile female CEOs announced their departures within a month? There is an unfair suggestion that following the huge media and political focus on Women on Boards, it is a strategic and political move to ‘leave on a high’ having turned their companies around, and expecting a return to more difficult corporate times ahead.

Such things are undoubtedly cyclical and after tenures of 15 and 9 years in such a high pressure environment, Dame Marjorie and Ms Swann have certainly done their bit. Cynthia Carroll’s 6 years at Anglo American comes after significant increased profitability, and successfully weathering the global financial crisis, but also comes after significant shareholder pressure for a change after a loss of faith in Ms Carroll’s strategy and leadership following a drop in current year performance.

And perhaps that is the crux of the problem? It isn’t a gender issue, it is back to the unrealistic expectations/misguided pressure of shareholders? A seasonal shift from Shareholder Spring? Shareholder Autumn, or ‘Fall’?

…..OR maybe these ladies (and Dames) just ran out of steam trying to push water up a male dominated hill?

Even since my blog of last month, I have met 6 or 7 highly impressive, senior female directors – the potential next generation of female FTSE-100 leaders (contact me for details….!). This next generation of leading ladies in business are seriously impressive, but still too few. So we should indeed see this crop of resignations as a blip rather than a slippery slope.

Yes, business needs to work harder to encourage more women to aim for the top, and clearly now help them to stay there. Yes, we need to address the female attitude surrounding the aspiration to climb to the very top……. and my god yes we need to address the male attitude towards female leaders, again, see more here.

Flexible hours, subsidised childcare and flexible parental leave are all, in reality, a misnomer and a tiny part of this problem. Ask any one of the ladies mentioned above and I guarantee none of them will have seen them as in any way a reason for their departures, or a significant factor on their routes to the top.

Those people at the top are typically wildly in love with their work, usually to the point of obsession. Family, love interest, everything plays second fiddle, and much as work/life blend is critical, flexibility simply isn’t a factor. Executives do what is needed – see Marissa Mayer.

Marissa Mayer

Where women do differ is attitude, but not necessarily adversely.

Earlier this year, the Telegraph conducted a survey amongst new graduates. Over 20% of male respondents aspired to take home more than £100,000 per year, only 16% of females did. At the opposite end of the scale, 16% of females would be happy earning £30,000 with no aspirations to earn more whereas only 10% of men would be. Other findings from the same survey? Running your own business: 22% Vs 16%. Becoming a CEO? 6% Vs 3%.

This difference in ambition sets the two genders of on different paths, but this ‘do what it takes’ attitude more prevalent in men has an impact higher up the corporate ladder…..and this leads on to what I suspect IS a major reason for the lack of female CEOs, and for their longevity.

As discussed in Pick on the Big Guys, the role of a large company CEO is a very high pressure one. It will typically take decades of 80-100 hour weeks, immense commitment and personal/life sacrifice. That is enough to dissuade many would be CEOs.

However, thanks to political and media interference, usually from an immense position of ignorance, the role of large company CEO has now become akin to that of a celebrity with every move analysed and criticised. Success is expected, failure punishable by (corporate) death. Witness the unmitigated shareholder revolt seen earlier this year, even leaders of hugely successful businesses, experiencing record performance, had their comparatively small earnings scrutinised by those who income was inflated due to such success – the so called Shareholder Spring.

It is no longer a pleasant place to be, several male leaders have bowed out, rather than continually facing such external pressure, several more have taken the choice not to seek the large company CEO role, preferring a smaller, more entrepreneurial, often Private Equity backed route in preference.

Particularly telling are the number of near C-Level female execs I have met that, having previously eyed the top job, have now ruled out such an ascension; the much reported Glass-Ceiling. Most realise that the sacrifice to their lives is simply not worth it.

Can we really see that as a weakness?

Martha Lane Fox

What ever the reason, the number of female FTSE-100 CEOs has halved in a month, and the number of large company female directors decreased at a time when everyone is championing movement in the opposite direction. Internal/business attitude and chauvinism doesn’t appear to be to blame either….. Cue Lord Davies, Ms Lane-Fox & Ms Reding.

25 Comments on “What’s wrong with women?”

  1. Great Blog Gary. I did think the same when I saw the news this morning. It is an interesting story why so many female leaders have left so recently. Our task, and your task, is to replace them like for like.

  2. Has anyone thought that may be women are just not up to the job of the modern large company CEO? It may well be for bigotted reasons further down the career chain, but perhaps they just can’t cut it at the moment? Too emotional? Too commone sense? Too normal? Not evil/bulling enough? Whatever the reasons, it just isn’t working.

    • With respect, and please excuse my language, but that is bullshit. We’ve lost two CEOs from FTSE100 businesses, both after well above average time in post.

  3. I suspect while the corporate boardroom was an pleasant environment for many years, the women you mention gained quick wins, and genuinely added to their respective businesses, but as times get tougher and harder questions need answering, the novelty of having a female CEO wears off and it’s back to brass tacks.

    If what your earlier blogs say rings true, there are more, better qualified men to deal with such times, hence ladies exit stage left?

  4. Would anyone give a damn if three men left their posts after 15, 9 and 6 years? Of course not. Why all the hype about three women leaving then? This just gives greater opportunity for other women to rise to the top.

    • I think 50% of the female CEOs leaving in a month is pretty news worthy as well as worrying for businesses and women in business alike?

  5. Great piece Gary, well written and very thought provoking. It is a scandal that only 4 FTSE100 CEOs were in post a month ago, to see 2 of those leave is both worrying and cause for further investigation. I agree wholeheartedly with most of your summations but there is more to it, and more to be understood. If we are going to lose female CEOs then we need to redress the environments in which they work.

    Well done though, another great blog.

  6. Good blog Gary, again not as controversial as I expected given the title. Going soft in your old age? 🙂

    The subject is an interesting one and cause for concern. With three CEOs and an almost CEO leaving in a month, that has to be more than just natural churn?

  7. Fascinating subject and insight into the minds of C-Level execs. I find it really interesting that you are seeing a tail of in female (and male) desire to get to the top job. Thats the sort of fact that the media and vigilante shareholders don’t see or appreciate. Great blog thought Gary, and I like the new look website.

  8. Incredible that having had such a rise in females getting to board roles, we now see the good work being unpicked.

    Makes you wonder what would happen if the 40% quota did come in.

  9. The sample size of these departures is so small as to be meaningless. What it highlights is that there are not enough women in such roles. If there were 40 of the FTSE-100 led by women, 2 departures would be irrelevant. We simply need greater acceptance of women in business, and quotas are the only way to attain that.

  10. There is quite obviously nothing wrong with women, the issue is with society, business and especially, people in your profession. These women prove that they have the skills required, they just don’t get the opportunity to prove it.

  11. This and your others blogs make for interesting Friday afternoon reading Gary. The role of a top board director is a lot different and a lot harder than I suspect most people give credit for. I dare say your role in finding individuals is a lot harder than realised too.

    Do you really supply is the biggest issue that prevents more women getting to the FTSE100?

  12. Thought provoking blog Gary. It is sad to see great female leaders leaving their post. I work for one of them at the moment, and she has done amazingly well, just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He success is largely down to her gender, her departure is nothing to do with her gender,

    Important distinction.

  13. Great blog on a sensitive topic, well done for being mature in your approach and research. So many people use this to take cheap shots at women in business, pleased to see a balanced article

  14. Great read Gary and has caused intense discussion in our household over breakfast! tough subject, tougher answers. I suspect your summation about shareholder and media attitude has more credance than most suspect.

    Well done.

  15. Great article and logical conclusion. Society is to blame for sure, until we shift the expectation and negative view of the large organisation CEO, those with common sense will avoid the seat. Women are more common sense based than male counterparts.

  16. Well done for highlighting my own personal pet hate about the Women In Business argument, the notion that flexibility and childcare hold women back. It’s totally false, as you highlight, if you have the motivation to get to the top, logistics are just another hurdle to overcome, another challenge to resolve whether you are male or female. The notion that men can leave kids at home with their wife but women can’t do the same is weakening our argument. Equality is want women need, not a gifted advantage!


  17. Best man for the job. How is that so difficult to grasp. The women you mention above were all deemed the best man for the job at one point, and probably still are in most cases. They will be replaced by whoever is consider to be the next best man for the job. Shit changes, business changes, people change. The best yesterday is not automatically the best today. Let business choose the best for them without interferance. If a woman wants to be the best, be the best.

  18. Good blog and a very popular subject. Interesting to combine the shareholder spring with the current exodus of female directors. Do you really think that is a link?

    I can’t see why there aren’t more female directors, but there also don’t seem to be a lot of female business leaders of any nature?

    Well done a though challenging tale.


  19. Interesting comments bioth above and in the blog. There really is no reason why there are less women in business other than make suppression. Scholastically women out perform men, ditto professional qualification, it is only once male dominated environment stifle female advancement that women lose out. Sad thing is that the large accountancy firms and solicitor practices are still the greatest breeding ground for senior execs, and until these environment become less stuffy, male dominated and raw chauvinistic, women will be fighting a losing battle.

    The three businesses above should catagorically ensure they replace like for like.

  20. Rachel (above) is spot on. Peter Jenks (second comment) has illustrated beautifully the kind of nonsensical but damaging mysogenistic attitude that all ambitious women have to contend with. Constantly. ‘What if women aren’t up to it?’ Really? I mean, really? How convenient would it be for the Peter Jenks of this world not to have compete with women at all, for a place at the Board table? Therefore the ‘women are inferior’ myth is expounded again and again. That is what women are up against.

  21. Great Blog and still some very good points made. I operate at board level and have had to fight to get here, but so has every male on our board. I’m sick of women wasting energy complaining that they get a rough deal. Put as much energy into your career as you do on that and you would join me at the top table.

    Giving me a handicapped advantage is insulting.

  22. Pingback: 2013, It Was A Very Good Year – A HeadHunter’s Year In Numbers | Gary Chaplin

  23. Pingback: 2013 – A HeadHunter’s Year In Numbers | Gary Chaplin


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: