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Female CEOs, still a rarity, face extra pressures

August 10, 2016
Diversity & Inclusion

Top female executives wonder what’s next for Marissa Mayer—and for the rest of their slim ranks.

The Yahoo Inc. CEO is wrapping up one chapter of her career, as the internet company works to sell its core assets to Verizon Communications Inc. For many women leaders, she embodies the particular challenge of being female and in charge.

Some say Ms. Mayer and other female CEOs frequently face extra scrutiny for their management decisions, strategy plans and personal lives. Others are concerned that they have little margin for error, which can make risk-taking perilous and winning crucial.

“So few women make it to this level. You don’t want to give them an example of, ‘Well she didn’t work,’ ” said Melanie Cox, chief executive of retailer Wet Seal LLC.

Ms. Cox has led the company since last year, after it emerged from bankruptcy-court protection. A veteran of turnarounds at retailers Scoop NYC and G+G Retail Inc., she has worried that a rocky tenure could mar her credentials as a female CEO.

“You get the opportunity and then if it doesn’t work out, are you ever going to get it again? That’s the pressure,” Ms. Cox said.

Women “are getting harsher treatment than men leading difficult turnarounds,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at Yale School of Management. “We are just learning how to understand women as leaders,” he added.

Still a rarity in the highest offices of corporations, women hold just 4.4% of CEO spots at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a research group that tracks executive women.

Katia Beauchamp, CEO and co-founder of Birchbox Inc., a beauty e-commerce company, said she thinks “a lot about the burden to succeed” as a female leader. “For people who are less represented, there are fewer examples of great success.”

Birchbox has recently struggled to raise funds, scaling back growth plans and laying off workers. Still, Ms. Beauchamp, who like Ms. Mayer has had children while serving as CEO, said she aims to serve as a successful role model, telling herself, “If you have the ‘at bat,’…you swing for the home run.”

Hired to run Yahoo when she was 37 years old and six months pregnant with her first child, Ms. Mayer was celebrated as a path-breaker who could save the struggling search giant. But she was criticized for everything from her brusque management style to appearing in Vogue.

Ms. Mayer’s decision to take very short maternity leaves following the birth of her first child in 2012 and again with twins in 2015 stirred controversy.

But some women leaders noted the double standard. No one would have blinked an eye at a male CEO heading back to the office soon after the birth of a child, Ms. Cox said.

The intense spotlight on female CEOs may deter them from taking risks, said Kathleen Mason, ousted in 2012 as chief of Tuesday Morning Corp., a home-furnishings closeout retailer. She left after a 12-year run during which the company’s stock fell nearly 60%. (She later settled a discrimination suit that alleged the retailer fired her after she developed breast cancer.)

“It is difficult when it [the criticism] starts piling on. And when it starts piling on, it can become unfair,” particularly in turnarounds, said Ms. Mason, now a consultant for the retail and wholesale industries.

“And turnarounds are what’s available for women CEOs for the most part,’’ Ms. Mason continued. An outside spokesman for Tuesday Morning declined to comment.

Research suggests that women tend to be picked for top roles when a company is in turmoil, a phenomenon known as the ‘glass cliff.’ Researchers from Germany and the U.S. found 62% of participants in an experiment chose a man to head a company that was performing well, while 69% chose a female candidate when the company was in crisis.

When a female CEO can’t revive the fortunes of an ailing company, onlookers might be quick to forget she took the job at a firm that was heading downhill.

“She will be more likely to fail and we don’t see it as due to the conditions she was entering the position under,” said Nyla Branscombe, a psychology professor at University of Kansas who co-wrote the 2010 paper about glass cliffs that included that experiment. “Rather we’ll see it as, ‘Well, women just can’t do it.’”

Yet female business leaders expect Ms. Mayer to find another plum corporate role if she wants one after she leaves Yahoo. She was eligible for $48.6 million in severance as of late Monday, estimates Equilar, an executive-pay consultancy.

She “did a good job with a very broken company,’’ said Penny Herscher, who ran Simplex Solutions Inc. until its 2002 sale to Cadence Design Systems Inc. and is now a member of two public-company boards. During a difficult turnaround, “every CEO of a beleaguered company, male or female, green or pink, is criticized. That is part of the job.”

By Rachel Feintzeig and Joann S. Lublin

Source: Wall Street Journal

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