In June 2011, Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock praised the company’s first female chief executive, Carol Bartz, at the annual shareholder meeting. She was making “hard-won progress” to turn around the ailing software company, he said. He and the board were “very supportive.”
Barely two months later, without warning or, to this day, explanation, Bostock fired Bartz in a telephone conversation that lasted less than three minutes.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Bartz told me in a phone conversation this weekend. “I loved working there. It was a terribly hard job. But it was also very thrilling. To be so unceremoniously dumped, like I was some kind of criminal, was shocking.”
“They would never have done that to a male CEO,” she added. “I will go to my grave on that one.”
Like with Bartz, the full story about what led to the sudden and unceremonious dumping of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is still a puzzle, despite the news media unearthing conflicting accounts of escalating tensions over fair pay (which New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has denied), personality clashes and management style.
Abramson, who gave the commencement address at Wake Forest University Monday morning, has been silent. “What’s next for me?” she said to the graduates. “I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”
But like Bartz, Abramson had been praised by none other than Times chief executive Mark Thompson as recently as April 28, just days before her May 9 dismissal. Ken Auletta, writing in the New Yorker, published an e-mail reportedly from Thompson to Abramson urging her to stay on for several more years.
So, to Bartz’s point, a central question remains: Would Sulzberger have done this to a guy? And if not, what does that say about any hard-won progress toward creating true equal opportunity and diversity in newsrooms, workplaces and boardrooms? (The Women’s Media Center in its most recent report noted that men still dominate the top editing spots in my industry, snag the most bylines, are quoted the most and dominate radio and TV as talking heads. Last year, the report found that the New York Times had the fewest female bylines among the nation’s 10 largest newspapers at 31 percent, compared to the Chicago Sun-Times’ 46 percent, the Wall Street Journal’s 43 percent and the Washington Post’s 41 percent. That, and moving more women into leadership, Abramson said she was committed to change.)
That Sulzberger replaced Abramson with Dean Baquet, a well-respected and well-liked journalist who will now serve as the newspaper’s first African American executive editor, is laudable. But, after Abramson’s disastrous firing and the ensuing crescendo of protest, at what cost?
“It’s actually very disturbing how they applaud themselves when they hire a female. ‘See! Look what I’ve done! I’m a really a modern businessman,” Bartz said. “Then they’re so quick to push us off the pedestal.”
To be fair, leaders throughout the ages, regardless of their gender, have been ousted by disgruntled boards, unhappy bosses, palace coups, revolutions and mutinies. But Bartz and Abramson are far from alone as women leaders given the boot before their time.
Bartz. Abramson. Natalie Nougayrede, a war correspondent ousted from the top editing spot at Le Monde after a mere 14 months. Carly Fiorina, asked to step down as CEO of Hewlett Packard. Andrea Jung, who served 12 years at the helm of Avon before being asked to leave. Susan Glasser, editor of Politico magazine, wrote recently about her ouster as a top editor at The Washington Post in a piece she titled, “Editing While Female.”
In fact, a new report on the fate of women CEOs at the top 2,500 companies over the past decade shows that not only are women as rare as pandas in the upper ranks – barely 3 percent of all CEOs — but that women’s tenures tend to be shorter and rockier than men’s. And women CEOs are forced out of office at a statistically significant higher rate than men — 38 percent to 27.
Gary Neilson, a consultant with Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.), and one of the report authors, said that may be because more women CEOs are brought in from the outside, which is inherently riskier. They don’t have the internal networks or know the company culture as intimately, which can lead to what he called “organ rejection.” And outsiders are typically brought in to work magic and turn around a sagging operation.
“But being hired from the outside doesn’t explain all of the speed of firing of women CEOs,” Neilson said. Their report didn’t look at pay disparities or other issues. “We don’t know all those answers.”
Bartz was brought in to turn around Yahoo as an outsider. But Abramson, also given the weighty task of turning around a flagging print empire in an increasingly digital age, was such an insider at the New York Times that she had a “T” tattooed on her back to honor the institution that so shaped her.
In a letter Sulzberger released over the weekend, he blamed Abramson’s abrupt and mercurial management style for her demise. He wrote that even after hiring a consultant to help her, “I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”
That, Carol Bartz said, is the tried and true, yet old, tired and often unfair “women’s temperament argument.” Bartz was often criticized for her brusque manner and her salty tongue.
“That’s what they use against women leaders all the time — there’s something wrong with their ‘temperament,’” she said. “Or stocks. That’s the other thing you can say to get rid of a woman CEO. When in reality, stock is up and down 100 times during a CEO’s tenure. It just is.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, former top State Department official and current president of the New America Foundation, said the double standard for male and female leaders remains rampant.
“I encountered many cases in the State Department in which women were not promoted because they had ‘sharp elbows’ or an ‘abrasive style,’ attributes that might have been deplored in a man but would have been seen simply as a concomitant of his ability to ‘get things done,’” she wrote me in an e-mail. “Can anyone remember the last time a man got fired for his ‘style’ of management rather than his results?”
Clearly, something is not working. And we’re only hurting ourselves. Neilson agrees.
“We all talk about the war for talent. Companies are doing something wrong when they don’t even build the talent that they have. The war for talent is not to be fought outside the walls, but inside the walls of your own company,” he said. “If you are systematically failing to develop talent, through your development programs, onboarding, offboarding, maybe your unintended biases, your structural biases, you want to fix those. Because you want the best people.”
Bartz, who now sits on the board of Cicsco, another high-tech firm, attributes her firing, in part, to a board that wanted “fairy dust” faster than she told them she could produce it.
“I think, for the most part, if women are in positions of power and not affecting or offending anyone, and if things are going well, then everything’s fine,” she said. “But if, say, Facebook were to fall on its face tomorrow, no pun intended, would Sheryl Sandberg be in the position she’s in, or would she also start to be maligned? I think the latter,” Bartz said. “Don’t get me wrong. I think Sheryl’s a great executive. It’s just that it’s very, very easy to take a female down faster. It’s more accepted.”
Although Neilson in his report projects that by 2040, nearly one-third of all CEOs will be women, Bartz isn’t so sure.
“I think it’ll be a long time before our daughters and nieces or their daughters and nieces or their daughters and nieces will have a fair fight,” she told me. “I wish any female leader out there the strongest backbone, the thickest skin and the fastest running shoes.”
“Running shoes?” I asked.
“Just to stay ahead of the jerks,” she laughed. “I would use another word, but I’ve really cleaned up my act.”