Whispered rumours abound: women leaders are more likely to get kicked out than men. Survey the bodies. Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Natalie Nougayrede, editor-in-chief of French newspaper Le Monde, are the most recent victims. They follow a host of familiar names from the corporate world: HP's Carly Fiorina, Yahoo's Carol Bartz, Anglo American's Cynthia Carroll.
Strategy&, the consultancy created out of Booz & Company when PWC took it over, has jumped in to add some allegedly empirical fuel. Three of its menfolk have found it is true: women CEOs are more likely to get fired than men - 38% to 27% over the past 10 years. But, crucially, it also found that people who move between companies and industries are more likely to lose their jobs and that women are more likely to come from outside than men.
Strategy& can't or won't provide a breakdown of this number and, when you press them, the charming women presenting the report admit they've never seen the raw data. After a few weeks of pushing, the answer squeaks out. The data is 'directional' - wonk-speak for 'not conclusive'; the sample set of women CEOs is so minuscule that there is no statistically valid proof. So it may be true. Or it may just be a great headline.
But let's suppose there is something in it. Women who have worked their damnedest to smash through the reinforced glass ceiling and get to the top are easily pushed back down again. What might have helped? What do you need to know to keep yourself safe? There are some clear themes, none of them easy.
The first is not to be naive when you get offered that big job. Whenever companies decide to appoint an outsider, they insist that they would never appoint a leader based on anything other than competence; they'll only hire the very best person for the job. Uh huh. But the chance to look 'more progressive' or 'more diverse' is just so tempting when companies feel they need to do something very different.
One global CEO admitted - off the record - that his company had chosen a woman to head a region in order to send a 'signal', despite the fact that it wasn't 100% sure of her suitability for the role. It's now suffering the consequences, says the discreet CEO, and trying to work out how to fire her without falling foul of the discrimination laws.
Ann Francke, CEO of CMI, points to the example of Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard and observes that some top jobs are poisoned chalices. In a really tough situation, it may be that the pipeline is narrow as the best talent has already left, or things may be so bad that none of the obvious insiders wants the job. Francke says that in those circumstances, women can be pushed out early in favour of a 'white, male saviour', who may then 'succeed' by reaping the benefits of changes instigated by his predecessor.
Strategy&'s report does have the data to prove that your survival odds are dramatically improved if you become CEO of the company you've grown up in - as Mary Barra (GM), Ursula Burns (Xerox) and Ginni Rometty (IBM) have done. But, even then, there are no guarantees: after four months in post, there were already whispers in the blogosphere that Barra's job was under threat.
Once you get the gig, you're much more visible than a man would be. This may help you in lots of ways but, just like granny told you, today's peacocks are tomorrow's feather dusters. Be very wary of courting too much attention. Lifestyle interviews and glossy photo shoots are unlikely to win the love of your wider team, who may see you as a show-off and subtly - or not - withhold their support.
Take Cynthia Carroll, who was dramatically ditched as CEO of FTSE 100 mining giant Anglo American in October 2012. Variously described as an 'outsider', 'blonde', 'petite', 'unknown', Carroll was the subject of an explosion of media coverage no male boss would have attracted. She led a strategy of simplification and safety, changing the ground rules for the industry, and was pushed out by spooked investors when the share price dropped. Since her departure it has fallen another 20%.
Yahoo's Marissa Mayer has graced Vogue, Newton Asset Management's Helena Morrissey featured in Harper's Bazaar and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg has appeared in Vanity Fair. While they remain firmly in post, their profile has won them vicious personal attacks from both inside and outside their own organisations. It may not matter in the good times, but in a tough fight, it might.
Next, watch out for the unvoiced expectations - from men and women - that as a woman you'll be caring, collaborative and kind. But also a visionary leader who can make tough decisions. A demanding combination.
I can't count the number of women bosses who have been described as bitches in the writing of this piece: even my best friend launched into the head of her NHS trust, calling her a stupid cow, 'a former nurse' and admitting: 'I don't know why it matters she's a woman - we'd hate a man too - but it does.'
In her work, Heather McGregor (aka Mrs Moneypenny), managing director of executive search firm Taylor Bennett, is acutely sensitive to unconscious bias towards women leaders. 'People expect them to be more inclusive, perhaps more caring, and are shocked if they are not. If someone tells me a woman was fired because of dissent in the ranks, I apply a discount factor. Women are judged harshly for toughness.'
Jill Abramson won handfuls of Pulitzers but struggled to turn the NYT behemoth around (Its last results showed profits down 54%). But she was as tough and uncompromising as she had always been. Reports describe her as unpopular, uncaring, detached and condescending. We will never know if a man who behaved in the same way would have been treated similarly.
But, as another CEO put it, could Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco have done what he did and in the style he did it if he was a woman? This generation of female leaders have had to be tough and determined to get those jobs. A man who runs the diversity group at a mid-sized City firm says their most senior women have made it through 'sheer force of will' and 'don't always make aspirational role models. At the most extreme, an invitee recently described two speakers at one of our events as hatchet-faced bitches'.
A more diplomatic interpretation might be that one survival strategy to make it in an alpha-male world is to conceal your vulnerability and present yourself as icy cold or brutally tough, which won't make you many allies.
Back to Heather McGregor, who grounds it in purpose. 'CEOs need to deliver the strategy and the P&L. To do this they need to carry people with them. There can be a perception that tough women are less able to take people with them. But that is not true. There are brilliant, inclusive women leaders out there. Look at Indra Nooyi, Dido Harding, Angela Ahrendts and Harriet Green.'
And there, it seems, lies the answer: whatever else you do as a leader, you have to figure out how to take people with you, especially if you're a woman. If you don't, you'll pay the price.
HIGH FLYERS: WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED
Julie Meyer, CEO, Ariadne Capital
- What is the most important thing CEOs do?
For men and women CEOs, everything comes down to how you deliver messages. People either have - or they lose - confidence in people. So how you cope with delivering results or bad news really matters. You need confidence, charisma and charm. I look at someone like John Chambers, CEO at Cisco, and I am endlessly impressed by his ability to communicate brilliantly.
- Do people judge you differently as a CEO because you're a woman?
I think that gender is only one piece of how people judge you. For example, they see me as a woman, an American, an entrepreneur - it is a basket of goods that they judge.
Maybe it is harder for women sometimes. You don't get to be a leader of a big organisation by playing Mother Hen and taking care of everyone all the time. You have to make tough decisions and keep the support of people around you as you do it. I am sure there are some senior women leaders who people think are bitches - but they have a job to do.
- What have you learnt about being taken seriously in a big job?
After I sold my first company and made a lot of money I realised that people treated me as more important because they thought I was successful. But I was the same person. I had an epiphany and understood that I'd applied a mental discount to my value before and I decided to add a premium. You have to choose to send out signals about how people should treat you and train other people to regard you highly. It's very hard to change established relationships so we mustn't be passive about it.
- Are men better at that than women?
If I see a gender difference, it is that women can tend to be more accepting of how others treat them. If you accept people treating you as less important, then you are complicit in that deal.
- What advice do you have to women who want to be a CEO?
It is important to dress very well. Part of the signal is looking right. If you dress like you're looking for a date, you'll never get the top job.
Look at Helena Morrissey, for example: she dresses exquisitely. She looks expensive - she looks the part - and quite right. It is worth spending time on. I think what Helena is doing with the 30% Club is wonderful. She is taking on the boys' club. And she is someone who has worked really hard to manufacture her own luck and won the support of her team doing it.
- Which women leaders do you admire?
Margaret Thatcher. Or Carolyn McCall at easyJet. That looks like a very tough role to me but she is delivering great results.
- Final thought?
Look, there are some misogynists out there but you have to focus on what you can change and take responsibility for how the world sees you. And remember men can have a tough time too.
Amanda Mackenzie, CMO, Aviva
- Are women more likely to get pushed out at senior levels?
I suspect they are just more visible. Although I do think that the people who succeed are those who can exercise different muscles - who can be assertive enough to get to very senior roles and then wise enough to change their approach later. At a certain point, different skills become more important - being engaging, being generous in spirit, coaching individuals and teams, and actively hiring people who are better than you.
I sometimes think of Margaret Thatcher in that regard: her formidable drive, vision and determination got her the role but were ultimately a hindrance.
- Do companies hire senior women because it looks good?
At the top levels, you are looking for the very best person in the market at that time. I do think there is a trend - perhaps not always acknowledged - towards the skills that women are often perceived to be better at: emotional intelligence and collaboration - a move away from old-fashioned command and control, so you treat people in an adult/adult way not parent/child. Both men and women need to think about this shift if they are going to be successful leaders.
- Do you think women and men behave differently in senior roles?
I notice that a lot of men seem able to take things less personally than women. They can fight tooth and nail over an issue and then be buddies and have a beer with someone afterwards. I think women often find that hard. Maybe it is a skill bred in team sports - you play a fierce match and then shake hands and move on. At an extreme, it can also be a disadvantage; I've seen men negotiate too hard, too close to the wire and burn through the goodwill of peers by not being strategic enough about the relationships involved.
On the other side, some women who have made it have fought so hard that they appear to be rather emotionally closed off, as if they want to be seen as infallible and untouchable. I'd hope the next generation might avoid that and be a better balance of the best attributes all round.
Nicola Rabson, Head of employment and incentives, Linklaters London
- What do you think of the Strategy& report indicating women leaders are more likely to be fired than men?
It seems naive to assess reasons for moving based on public data and even on some individual conversations. There is often much more to the story and the realities will rarely be publicly accessible.
In my experience, women can be more collaborative and so more open about their individual challenges, problems and weaknesses. That gives others the data they need to make life harder for them. Women can also be more sensitive to the feedback and so decide actively to manage their own exits. These moves will look like proactive career progression but they may have happened earlier than planned.
- Do you see differences in how senior men and women are treated?
What I do see is that when there is one senior person with any protected characteristic (women, ethnic minorities, people who are gay, people of a particular religion) it can breed nervousness about how to handle genuine performance problems and concerns. When things are going well, they will get the same informal/pub feedback as others. But if there is a problem, people will jump to process too quickly and stop those conversations just at a time when they are the most needed. My advice to women is to keep seeking that informal feedback, even when you sense that it may be upsetting. And my advice to employers is not to worry so much about discrimination claims if you are not doing anything discriminatory.
- And what about differences in how men and women behave if there is a problem?
In settlements, I have observed that some women settle more swiftly than men and get less as a result. My sense is that they want the closure and to avoid further confrontation so they focus on the top-line number and ignore the other details that can make a big difference to the actual value of the deal. Men can be more prepared to fight through the finer details - right down to the mobile phone.
- Any advice?
Be savvy about the performance information you share and how you present it, especially about any gaps. Do not be too open about your weaknesses; choose who you share your vulnerability with.
Keep actively seeking feedback and discussing results: this is most important in challenging times.
If you do get into a settlement, decide what is important to you and don't be afraid to negotiate.