Women make up just about 1 percent of chief executives in the Fortune 500. And the recent departure of Carly Fiorina from her perch as chairman and chief executive at Hewlett-Packard Co. made that percentage drop even further.
Well, for one day. The day after Fiorina left the chief executive chair, Brenda C. Barnes, president of Sara Lee Corp., was named to succeed chief executive C. Steven McMillan, taking the number of female chief executives of large corporations right back up to . . . eight.
But the news of the week was Fiorina's departure. Yes, her tenure lasted a decent six years. She became a household name. Her face practically became a household face. But will her departure also be just another "aha, see?" moment in corporate America? When a woman is ousted from such a high position, is the fall more pronounced than if she were a he?
Fiorina's chief executive sisters within the Fortune 500 include Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox Corp., Patricia F. Russo of Lucent Technologies Inc., Mary F. Sammons of Rite Aid Corp., Andrea Jung of Avon Products Inc., S. Marce Fuller of Mirant Corp., Eileen R. Scott of Pathmark Stores Inc. and Marion O. Sandler of Golden West Financial Corp.
Seventeen women lead Fortune 1000 companies, including Margaret C. Whitman, chief executive of eBay Inc. Some are speculating Whitman's tenure may not last much longer, as the company last month warned that its 2005 performance will fall short of expectations.
"Everybody is so interested when a female executive goes under," said Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, a women's advocacy group. "The coverage [Fiorina] is going to get for it has everything to do with being a woman because there are so few women at the top, and they receive a great deal of scrutiny."
Women executives will continue to receive such scrutiny until there are more of them in chairman and chief executive positions, many say. Hewlett-Packard directors appointed Robert P. Wayman, 59, as interim chief executive. Patricia C. Dunn -- yes, a woman -- will become non-executive chairman. But Dunn is not expected to replace Fiorina as chief executive.
To become high-level executives, women must first make their way into positions that generate revenue or have profit-and-loss responsibility, Spence said. "You have to have bottom-line responsibility" to be rewarded with a top job, she said. Women account for a paltry 9.9 percent of those positions, according to Catalyst, a women's research organization.
"At these levels, people are under utmost scrutiny" regardless of sex, said Brian Sullivan, chief executive and chairman of Christian & Timbers, a search firm that recruited Fiorina for Hewlett-Packard. He said hiring Fiorina as chief executive was seen as a slick business move, finally pushing the company out of its deep "inbred" roots.
Fiorina filled all expectations, he said, as she had the skill set the company was looking for, a "world-class business mind" and a great understanding of technology. But even though the board said it wanted someone with new ideas, "when Carly came in with these skills and proposed the Compaq merger, it caused consternation in the board because Hewlett-Packard had traditionally not done mergers," Sullivan said. "I do get a kick out of them [switching from] wanting an out-of-the-box thinker to challenge our roots to 'Wait, she's challenging our roots.' "