Even though women made up only three percent of newly appointed CEOs in 2013, Strategy& (formally Booz & Co) predicts in a recent report that they will make up one-third of newly appointed CEOs by 2040. This sounds like progress. However, the same report says that over the last decade, 38 percent of female CEOS in the world’s 2,500 biggest public companies were fired, compared to 27 percent of their male counterparts.
What this shows isn’t male superiority, but the so-called glass cliff theory—which states that women, and other “occupational minorities,” tend to get appointed to lead when companies are already in crisis. When a woman CEO fails to save an already failing company, the board looks for a traditional candidate to replace her—a white man with industry experience. Alison Cook and Christy Glass, who studied Fortune 500 CEO transitions from 1996 to 2010, call this the “savior effect.” What their research found is that companies showing diminished returns on equity and assets are more likely to put a woman or minority in the top position.
“Glass cliff” hires are well represented among the 23 women who currently run Fortune 500 companies—like Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez (formally Kraft), who were brought in from outside the company to effect company turnarounds. Strategy& also confirms that this as a trend, saying that 35 percent of incoming female CEOs are outside hires, while the same is only true for 22 percent of male CEOs.
This is why women who reach the top tend to have a more varied career background then men. In his article published last year in The Leadership Quarterly, Terrance Fitzsimmons of Australia’s University of Queensland found that his female respondents held more positions during their career and were more likely to move out of their initial industry more than men. He also found that females were trained in crisis management at earlier ages than men, saying, “Nearly all of the female respondents experienced one of the following: A forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings, or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen.” While these are the experiences the women in the study reported, the men involved reported having more sheltered, even idyllic, childhoods.
And while the interviews Fitzsimmons conducted were career related, the women who were interviewed spent an average of 22 minutes longer than their male counterparts discussing the domestic responsibilities they still shouldered, like raising children.