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Women's empowerment

How to protect yourself as a female CEO 

Published 12 March 2024 in Women's empowerment • 8 min read

Female CEOs facing the ‘glass cliff’ must navigate challenges strategically – assess, negotiate, and persist for lasting leadership success.

Levi Strauss & Co made headlines at the end of last year when it announced the appointment of a new chief executive.

Michelle Gass took up the reins at the iconic jean maker in February 2024, the 13th CEO in the firm’s almost 200-year history – and its first female boss. But if Gass was celebrating her historic appointment in the new year, she may also have been eyeing the coming months with some disquiet.

Grappling with last year´s margin crunch and with sales forecasts way lower than Wall Street expectations, Levi Strauss recently announced it would be cutting up to 15% of its global workforce, a move that has seen its shares slump. The pressure will certainly be on Gass as she navigates this first quarter. That, and a good deal of critical scrutiny.

Women who occupy the top jobs in organizations come in for considerably more censure and criticism than their male counterparts, particularly when performance or productivity are on the slide. We know that female CEOs can expect to handle more than their fair share of the blame – and when the chips are down, we also know they’re more likely to be fired.

There’s solid evidence that women leaders are significantly more susceptible to dismissal than men. A Journal of Management study finds that female CEOs are 45% more likely to be fired, regardless of how well the organization is performing, a phenomenon that researchers describe as “the glass cliff.”

There’s solid evidence that women leaders are significantly more susceptible to dismissal than men. A Journal of Management study finds that female CEOs are 45% more likely to be fired, regardless of how well the organization is performing
Women CEOs are much more likely than male CEOs to be dismissed, even when the women are performing well

In other words, once a talented and ambitious woman has broken through the glass ceiling, she then must deal with more criticism and scrutiny, and meet even higher standards than men, or face the consequences – as Sonia Syngal found out.

Like Gass, Syngal got the top job at a US clothing icon when she was appointed CEO of Gap Inc. in 2020. But her tenure was short-lived. Brought in to reverse operational problems, Syngal struggled to revitalize Gap’s sales – a Herculean task given the company’s overstocked inventory and a post-pandemic decline in demand. After just two years in the job, she was sacked and replaced by chairman of the board Bob Martin.

All of this begs the question: In a world where breaking through the glass ceiling sends us over the edge of a glass cliff, should we simply accept that the odds are stacked against us and call it quits?

I would say that meaningful change takes time to bed in and bear fruit. Yes, the odds, the equity in representation, and the balance of power may not yet be stacked in our favor. Women still run fewer than 11% of the Fortune 500 companies, and our tenure is around three years shorter than the average for men. The progress we are making towards parity is slow but solid. Another way to look at it is that women now make up almost 11% of the top CEOs worldwide. That number was stuck at 8% only two years ago. And yes, we stand more chance of getting fired than men, but there are more of us that can be fired from the top jobs than there have ever been in the past.

“Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”
– Hillary Clinton

Perhaps a better question to ask is this: In a world where women leaders are more likely to be fired than men, what can you do to protect and prolong your tenure?

Protecting your tenure as a female boss: some tips

Before saying yes to a C-suite role in any firm, I would advise women to spend some time taking the measure of the organization, including its outlook, culture, and recent history. Assess the opportunity in the context of the risks it also entails to make an informed decision before you accept.

Whether you are poised to go in as CEO, chief marketing or operations officer, or the head of any business-critical function, stop and take stock. A recent study led by Boise State University pinpoints some critical questions that I believe should inform your negotiations around salary, conditions, and severance.

Among these are:

1. Is this organization in good financial shape?

Looking at the financial health and stability of the organization will help you assess risk and make better sense of the expectations that will attach to you, your role, and your performance as a key decision-maker. Will these expectations be realistic or even achievable? What will you need to be successful? What factors might work in your favor or against you? And what kind of visibility do you have of growth objectives going forward? Looking at a company’s performance and recent leadership history will give you a sense of the road ahead in terms of risks to the organization – and to your role within it.

2. Are women well-represented within the organization?

And not just in executive positions, although a higher percentage of female leaders in situ should make your gender less salient as a senior executive. It should also be well worth your while to look at the board of directors as an indicator of support, especially if there are choppy waters ahead to navigate. There is evidence to suggest that when there are more women on the board, female CEOs can expect more by way of mentoring, sharing of information, and help in overcoming challenges. Women directors are also thought to be more adept at calling out biased behavior in board meetings, so look to see if you might have a powerful ally there.

3. How did the previous CEO leave?

Before you accept a senior role, check the circumstances under which your predecessor left the company. Research shows that when the previous incumbent has been fired, an incoming boss is more vulnerable to dismissal. You can expect there to be more rush, more of a need to quell disruption, and less strategic planning if you are expected to pick up the reins when another CEO has been ousted quickly or after serving for only a short period. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself working with a trigger-happy board of directors that is more prone to dismiss you if the results they expect fail to materialize fast enough.

Over the last two decades, the proportion of female CEOs in S&P 500 firms has increased from less than one percent to five percent
Over the last two decades, the proportion of female CEOs in S&P 500 firms has increased from less than one percent to five percent

There’s something else to add about negotiating your way into a top job as a woman, and it’s this: be prepared to fight for a good severance package.

If things don’t work in your favor, you will want to walk away with compensation that helps even some of the odds that were so heavily stacked against you. And the research here is encouraging.

The same Boise State study finds that women typically negotiate higher severance pay than men, especially when they take over struggling or poorly performing companies. We also strike better bargains when we know that the previous CEO has been fired before us. This suggests that female CEOs – and the boards that appoint them – understand, however tacitly, how much more vulnerable women are to premature dismissal than our male colleagues.

While this is by no means a solution to gender disparity in leadership, it can still be something of a silver lining – and one I would encourage all women considering a top job to prioritize.

It remains to be seen how Michelle Gass will fare as CEO of Levi Strauss. As an astute and seasoned business leader, I imagine that she will have her ducks well aligned should the board make hard choices about her future. Of course, my wish is that she will weather every one of the storms ahead and return the organization to growth and sustainable prosperity. My hope is that she will go on to consolidate her position as a female CEO and long-standing role model for upcoming generations of women leaders.


Corinne Post

Visiting Faculty at IMD

Corinne Post is Visiting Faculty at IMD, where she directs the Inclusive Leadership Program. Her research addresses questions related to diversity and diversity management, notably on women and boards and in top management teams. It also examines the role of diversity as enabler or impediment to group and organizational performance.


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