Our Problem With Powerful Women

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By BRYCE COVERT
WHEN Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama, she hit all the right notes. In her speech, seven years ago this Sunday, she urged everyone who had supported her to shine their affection on him.

Though her words expressed disappointment, she was optimistic about the path of progress toward gender equality. She called the presidency the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” But she also said that it had “about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

The arc of the history of women striving for the top, Mrs. Clinton assured her supporters, doesn’t just bend toward justice; it’s a straight line, carved by women clearing a path for those who come after.

She clearly believes in this story of progress, evidenced not just by her decision to run again but also, perhaps, by the token “progress pint glass” made from “shattered glass ceilings” for sale on her campaign website.

It’s hard to say whether the path truly is a little easier for women in politics every time one of them makes it into office. No woman has yet made it to the White House, and Congress is still less than 20 percent female, nearly a century after the first woman made it into the House of Representatives.

But we do know that politics most likely doesn’t reflect how progress works for women trying to crack the corporate glass ceiling. The path doesn’t get dramatically easier; in fact, it is often harder to make progress every time a woman steps into an executive office.

In 2009, the year after Mrs. Clinton conceded, women made up 13.5 percent of the top jobs at Fortune 500 companies. By 2013, that share barely inched up to 14.6 percent. Putting cracks in the glass ceiling may not matter as much as what happens after it’s shattered.

Too few women make it into corporate leadership. And the battle has only just begun once they get there. A wide body of research has uncovered a troubling trend: Women, as well as minorities, often get a chance at leadership only in times of turmoil. In one study of large companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, those that put women on their boards had just experienced consistently bad stock performance, while companies were generally stable before they appointed men.

In another study of all the promotions to chief executive at Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period, a company’s return on equity was consistently and significantly negative just before a woman or minority candidate got the job. Being thrust onto the glass cliff, as this phenomenon has become known, is a much more common way for a woman to get a shot at an executive role than for a man.

Corporate America is full of examples of this phenomenon. Think of Marissa Mayer becoming chief executive of Yahoo when it was deeply troubled. Mary T. Barra becoming the first woman to run a major auto company just as the recall scandal began to roil General Motors. Or Erin Callan, who became the first female chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers in 2007. (It filed for bankruptcy protection by September 2008). Or Anne M. Mulcahy, the first female chief executive of Xerox, who was appointed when the company was $17.1 billion in debt.

The disadvantage continues once they start trying to do their jobs, because powerful women still make us uncomfortable. In polling, both men and women say they prefer to have men in senior executive roles at Fortune 500 companies. Just two women make an appearance on a list of the 51 top rated C.E.O.s that employees enjoy working for. Ms. Mayer, one of them, is nearly dead last.

We may just not like seeing a woman act like a boss. Research has found that women face a backlash — both personal and financial — when they act assertively at work. Female leaders are more likely to be called abrasive, strident, aggressive and even emotional.

And given the disasters so many inherit, it shouldn’t be surprising that female chief executives are more likely to get forced out of their jobs than male ones. Not all of us can engineer stunning turnarounds.

Women have made tremendous progress in laying claim to positions of power, politically and in the corporate world. As of the early 1970s, no woman had ever been a chief executive of a Fortune 500 company; in April of this year, there were 23 at the helm of the Standard & Poors 500. Women hold a record 104 seats in Congress and 59 statewide offices.

Progress is not inevitable, though, nor is it fixed. The country has a complicated relationship with powerful women: They have to keep proving themselves over and over again, being twice as good, and dragging one woman through the process doesn’t make it easier for those who follow.

Individual women might hope that their struggles blaze trails for everyone else. Mrs. Clinton must feel optimistic about her chances to win the presidency a second time around. But the reality is that the country hasn’t gotten used to women in charge. A crack in the glass ceiling in one place could very well just reinforce it for everyone else.

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