- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Can a woman succeed where men have failed?

The new Belgian government is proof that the glass ceiling for women still exists but it gets worse… it reveals the existence of a “glass cliff”. Only 4 women are among the 18 ministers in Belgium’s new federal government.

Let’s make no mistake… it is not only the right leaning governments that have passed up women. The left leaning Wallonian government (South Region of Belgium) only has 1 woman among 8, and despite the efforts of Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Member States only put forward 9 women out of 28 to make up the new European Commission. It’s not just a question of parity and the need to reflect the real world that comprises half women and 60% of all university graduates. All the studies show that more diversity within teams markedly improves the quality and performance of the organisation that then benefits. It will now be even more difficult to impose a gender quota on listed companies when the public bodies do not apply it themselves (in Belgium 33% of the minority gender must be represented on the Board of Directors by 2018 and Europe wants 40% by 2017. We are currently at 17% in Belgium and 18% is the European average).

Is Belgium working so well that it does not need to tap into the talents of women?

The latest edition of Fortune magazine features 50 of the most powerful women in the world. This edition celebrates the fact that the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies has surpassed nearly 5% (sic) which is a common trend across nearly all continents and in all sectors, and one that has seen an acceleration over the last two years. In his editorial, the editor-in-chief writes that women who have succeeded in breaking through the glass ceiling are particularly remarkable, having had to confront the hyper-Darwinian selection of a generally macho corporate culture. But he also states that these “five-legged sheep” only arrive at the highest point of responsibility in companies when business go through an extremely complicated moment in which it needs to be reshaped in order to survive.

Ten years ago, two professors of the British University of Exeter used the expression the “glass cliff”  for the first time to explain that women often get positions of responsibility in ailing companies and that they do not enjoy the same support from their colleagues as a man would facing a similar challenge. There are numerous examples in the business world as well as in politics:

  • Jill Abramson, first female editor-in-chief of the New York Times who slammed the door on leaving when she discovered she was being paid a lot less than her predecessor and because her team did not support her at all.
  • The Icelandic women who took political and financial power after the economic disaster in 2008.
  • Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, nominated CEO of Hewlett-Packard or Patricia Russo for Alcatel-Lucent who could not restore the company results and who have become symbols of the non-performance of women in times of crisis, without mentioning Zoe Cruz, Co-President of Morgan Stanley in 2007, who became a scape goat despite her demand that the bank withdraw from subprime trading. She was replaced by two men…
  • Ségolène Royal, that the dinosaurs of the socialist party (PS) in France dropped (even the father of her children, then socialist general secretary and currently president of France) although she was chosen by the militants to face Nicolas Sarkozy for presidential elections.

Fortune magazine paints a picture of these other heroines who face a terrible responsibility…  Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors who learnt some weeks after taking up the position that there was a fault (known by other managers) in the air bags of the Chevrolet Cobalt which had led to the deaths of 13 people; Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM who had to rethink the entire business model so that the company could survive; the same for Susan Cameron, CEO of Reynolds who came out of retirement to oversee the acquisition of Lorillard and transform her tobacco industry into a free tobacco industry without tobacco. Not forgetting Janet Yellen, Chair of the US Federal Bank, and whose policy is focused on reducing unemployment rather than reducing inflation thus going against the advice of the financial pundits.

Why recruit women for mission impossible?

A number of studies show that when a company is in difficulty, those analysing the “business case” for choosing a new CEO look for a different type of leadership than that which has been in operation until that point and often the majority want a woman to replace a man. We know that the salaries of female CEOs are on the whole much less than those of male CEOs. This is partly due to the problems facing the company at the point they take office. The difficulty of the “mission” is a grave risk to the image and career of the man or woman who takes it on, and is again, not rewarded financially. There is, therefore, much less competition for such posts which opens up the opportunity for “outsiders” of the “business-as-usual” model, so first in line: women!

What about the reported failure of Jacqueline Galant and Marie-Christine Marghem?

Two ministers with the most risky portfolios (mobility and energy) are both women. These are no comfy, ministerial chairs to inherit but more like ejection seats. As an American banker said in the Financial Times of 14 October 2009: “It’s typical. The men make the “mess” and the women come in to clean it up.”

Let’s hope that they have at least some understanding of the extreme difficulty of their task and that they can avoid the second aspect of the Glass Cliff, which is the lack of support from their teams (in order words government). If they fail, it will not be “x or y has failed” but “a woman has failed”, because a woman’s failure is always criticised like a symbol of her entire gender.

The editor-in-chief of Fortune finishes his article by stating that the most precarious positions today are occupied by women and those women need exceptional skills in order to avoid failure. Ministers Galant and Marghem you have my full support!