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The tough job of being a female CEO

4/11/2016
Are female CEOs and political leaders more likely to be handed a poisoned chalice and then their gender used to blame them when they fail?
 
It's a theory often cited in politics, remember Kristina Keneally in NSW and Joan Kirner in Victoria, but less proven in the corporate world. However, a report released on 26 October by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Strategy Group has added weight to this theory, finding that the media is far more likely to focus on gender if the CEO is female.

Interestingly in the Australian context, the report came out in the same week that Ardent Leisure CEO, Deborah Thomas, was widely condemned for the $860,000 long and medium-term incentive package she received at the company's AGM - held two days after the Dreamworld tragedy. While Ardent Leisure's response was clearly a case study in how NOT to handle a crisis, the vitriol directed at Ms Thomas raised the question of whether a man would have been treated similarly.

The headline statistic from the Rockefeller report found that 49% of the media articles analysed mentioned gender when the piece was about a female CEO, compared with 4% when the piece was about a male CEO. It also found double the number (16% versus 8%) of female CEOs versus male CEOs spoke about their personal life in the article and 78% of the women compared with 0% of the men mentioned family life.

What was not entirely clear was whether this meant the questions from the journalists differed when male and female CEOs were interviwed, or if the media is so familiar with male CEOs that journalists do not bother to mention it. However female CEOs are so rare (4.7% of the S&P 500) that they attract attention.

The other questions this raised for me, was whether or not women are inherently more in touch with their emotional intelligence and more comfortable being authentic at work than male CEOs? This certainly appeared to be the case for Ms Thomas, who referenced her gender when she responded to media questions by saying; “I am a mother, I have a family. I take my family to Dreamworld. This could have been my family and I am completely sympathetic to what they must be going through." 

Inga Beale, the CEO of global insurance giant Lloyds of London believes that women do bring inherent female skills and traits to leadership roles and these are a great fit in times of crisis. Skills such as empathy, nurturing and the capacity to handle multiple crises were ones she referenced in her discussion with more than 70 women in the insurance industry in Sydney. There is certainly plenty of crises afoot in the global insurance industry, which Ms Beale said had never seen this more difficult and disrupted conditions which appeared to becoming 'the new global norm'.

The more worrying aspect of the Rockefeller report was that while corporate communication around the appointment of female CEOs was found to contain higher levels of confidence, they are more likely to be blamed as the source of the crisis when things go wrong - 80% of stories versus 31% of stories for male CEOs. In other words, females are welcomed with open arms as potential saviours but then savaged far more deeply when they get it wrong.

All of which does not bode well for Ms Thomas as she navigates Ardent Leisure through this difficult time.  We will wait and see.


About the Rockefeller Report
The report was based on an audit of 20 CEOs of US tech and Fortune 1,000 companies who had been involved in the following four scenarios: those who have been hired or appointed from within the company; publicly fired or stepped down due to public pressure; retired; or were involved in a crisis. Of the CEO's analysed, 11 (55%) were were female and 9 (45%) were male. The audit reviewed more than 100 news articles from 37 top tier media outlets and scored them on a range of metrics including but not limited to: the language used, tone, and inclusion of specific details such as gender, personal life, and qualifications.
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