Gender Politics and Corporate Management

Unsurprisingly, gender issues are coloring discussions of Hewlett-Packard’s recent managerial change:

Is HP Chief’s Demise Setback for Women? (IHT/NYT)

The question was bound to come up: If Carly Fiorina were a man, would the outcome of her turbulent tenure as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard have been different?

Most management specialists say no. They contend that the company’s misguided acquisition of Compaq and sluggish performance would have taken down any chief executive, of either sex.

And many note that Hewlett-Packard has tried hard to avoid any taint of sex discrimination; one woman, Ann Livermore, a respected Hewlett executive, is a possible candidate to replace Fiorina, and another, Patricia Dunn, is the nonexecutive chairman of Hewlett’s board.

Still, the specialists say, it is naïve to pretend that Fiorina’s downfall will not have an impact on women’s aspirations. Her sex, they say, has intensified the spotlight on the event and appeared to give those who look skeptically at women in high places more arguments for their position.

“Failure is not a contagious disease, but this is a minor setback for women nonetheless,” said Walter Scott, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “There are still a lot of people who do not feel women are as accomplished as men, and they will simply shake their heads and say, ‘I told you so.”‘

Others question this argument:

The harsh glare of publicity aside, many management authorities say Fiorina’s failure at Hewlett stems more from being an outsider flailing away at an entrenched culture than from sex-bias issues.

Many point to successful chief executives who are women – Andrea Jung at Avon, for example, or Marilyn Carlson Nelson at Carlson Cos. – who grew up with their companies and managed to revive growth.

Specialists make particular note of Anne Mulcahy, the Xerox veteran who pulled the company back from the verge of bankruptcy after she was promoted to chief executive in 2001, as proof that the power of cultural knowledge outweighs any negative associated with being female. Mulcahy succeeded G. Richard Thoman, who was brought in from outside after Paul Allaire, then Xerox’s chairman, served briefly as chief executive.

“Anne Mulcahy was an insider who knew the Xerox values and was of the Xerox culture, and I’ve seen the Xerox people rally around her,” said William George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “Carly was an outsider who just didn’t fit in.”

“Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard used to wander around and visit the labs,” he added, referring to HP’s founders, William Hewlett and David Packard.

“Carly liked big forums and public meetings but was not out there with the people. Carly tried to impose a centralized style on a decentralized company, a marketing culture on a company with an entrenched engineering culture. And there was a cultural rejection of her approach throughout Hewlett.”

Actually, some people think that gender may have aided her:

Management professors reacted to news of Fiorina’s resignation with spirited and often contradictory assessments of her strengths and weaknesses. Few put much emphasis on her being a woman, and those who did said it had helped her.

“I think her femaleness gave her an edge in the sense that everyone wanted to make sure she had a fair chance, that no one could say she was discriminated against,” said Benson Rosen, professor of management at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina. “There really wasn’t any sexism in the equation, and this will have a gender-neutral impact on women’s chances to be named CEO.”

But others say her “female” traits helped her push through the Compaq merger that ultimately caused her downfall.

James Schrager, a professor of strategic management at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, said: “I often asked myself how she could ram a bad strategy like buying Compaq through the board, and the answer was that she was incredibly charming, didn’t get rattled, knew how to walk the line between being too confrontational and too nice in a way that few men can.

“She’s gone out the front door because she envisioned and executed a strategy that failed, and business tradition when that happens is that your head gets lopped off and someone else gets a try.”

Along similar lines, I think that feminists need to recognize how their cause would have suffered in the absence of Fiorina’s exit. If she had remained despite evidence of poor corporate performance, many would have suspected preferential treatment. Under these circumstances, gender, failure, and preferences would have been disastrously interwoven. Nobody — not Fiorina, not women, not shareholders — would have gained from the arrangement.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Kent says:

    Fiorina has made a shambles of HP and Compaq. I can remember when HP calculators were a treasure to own, and Compaq had a reputation for selling quality PCs. No more.