Two of the highest profile women in tech have had a tough year. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, saw her company sold to Verizon. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the experimental blood testing company Theranos, was banned from her own labs by regulators for two years.
Though male founders and CEOs fail all the time, it may have different implications when women mess up, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.
"There are so many other male leaders that ... failure doesn't really create expectations about other men's leadership capacities or capabilities," she says.
When former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was indicted for securities fraud or Angelo Mozilo, the former chairman of Countrywide Financial, was associated with bringing on the housing crisis nobody suggested it was because they were men.
Because there are so few female CEOs, especially in tech, Cooper says when a Marissa Mayer or Elizabeth Holmes fails it can feed stereotypes. "It not only can damage her career just individually for herself," says Cooper, "but it can actually serve to reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren't quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions."
Cooper says there are studies that show that when women and men go to funders with the same idea, women are less likely to get backing.
And with the timing of failures by Mayer and Holmes so close, some people do lump them together despite their very different career trajectories. If you read the comments below articles online, both women are the targets of stinging sexism.
A recent post on NPR's site said of Mayer's failure — "simply evidence that women cannot lead." A post on news comment site Reddit — called both women part of the "the feminist industrial complex" that promotes unqualified women.
Despite other successful CEOs in tech, as young, attractive, rising stars Mayer and Holmes became media darlings. Holmes was fashioned as a great female visionary of the tech world. Last year, Time magazine put her on the list of its 100 most influential people. Holmes' penchant for wearing black turtlenecks evoked comparisons to Steve Jobs, who also wore them.
Mayer became a symbol of a woman CEO who could juggle her job and giving birth to twins. She appeared on television shows talking about the experience.
Many female executives in the tech world still prefer to see Mayer as a role model.
"I think certainly Marissa going in as a CEO who was having a child has shown that you can do both of those things at once. And just having a woman be in that role is normalizing for the rest of us," says Natala Menezes, who has been an executive at Amazon, Microsoft and Google and is currently a general manager at the marketing and analytics firm Localytics.
Minnie Ingersoll, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Shift, a startup that helps people sell used cars online, likes to see women shoot for the stars. "One message for young women is that it's OK to take a big risk and to fail," she says. "I think there's something actually for me personally that I find almost inspiring in someone who is willing to take that risk."
But she doesn't think Mayer and Holmes have much in common. "Marissa and Elizabeth are both blond women. But other than that, I see what is going on in their careers very differently," Ingersoll says.
Though being young and blond may have something to do with the media's fascination with these women, there are others succeeding as leaders in tech. Ursula Burns runs Xerox. Meg Whitman now runs HP enterprise — and as the former CEO of eBay she helped turn the company into a giant of online commerce. Ginni Rometty is CEO of IBM.
Menezes and Ingersoll hope that their successes will make it easier for women to succeed and dream so big that they can afford to fail as often as men do.
In 1996, the New Yorker published “Hating Hillary,” Henry Louis Gates’ reported piece on the widespread animosity for the then–first lady. “Like horse-racing, Hillary-hating has become one of those national pastimes which unite the élite and the lumpen,” Gates wrote. “[T]here’s just something about her that pisses people off,” the renowned Washington hostess Sally Quinn told Gates. “This is the reaction that she elicits from people.”
It might seem as though nothing much has changed in 20 years. Many people disliked Hillary Clinton when she first emerged onto the political scene, and many people dislike her now. She is on track to become the least popularDemocratic nominee in modern history, although voters like Donald Trump even less.
But over the last two decades, the something that pisses people off has changed. Speaking to Gates, former Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan described “an air of apple-cheeked certitude” in Clinton that is “political in its nature and grating in its effects.” Noonan saw in Clinton “an implicit insistence throughout her career that hers were the politics of moral decency and therefore those who opposed her politics were obviously of a lower moral order.”
Noonan’s view was a common one. Take, for example, Michael Kelly’s 1993 New York Times Magazine profile, mockingly titled “Saint Hillary.” “Since she discovered, at the age of 14, that for people less fortunate than herself the world could be very cruel, Hillary Rodham Clinton has harbored an ambition so large that it can scarcely be grasped,” Kelly wrote. “She would like to make things right. She is 45 now and she knows that the earnest idealisms of a child of the 1960s may strike some people as naive or trite or grandiose. But she holds to them without any apparent sense of irony or inadequacy.” Kelly’s piece painted Clinton as a moralist, a meddler, a prig.
Few people dislike Hillary Clinton for being too moralistic anymore. In trying to understand the seemingly eternal phenomenon of Hillary hatred, I’ve spoken to people all around America who revile her. I’ve interviewed Trump supporters, conventional conservatives, Bernie Sanders fans, and even a few people who reluctantly voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary but who nevertheless say they can’t stand her. Most of them described a venal cynic. Strikingly, the reasons people commonly give for hating Clinton now are almost the exact opposite of the reasons people gave for hating her in the 1990s. Back then, she was a self-righteous ideologue; now she’s a corrupt tool of the establishment. Back then, she was too rigid; now she’s too flexible. Recently, Morning Consult polled people who don’t like Clinton about the reasons for their distaste. Eighty-four percent agreed with the statement “She changes her positions when it’s politically convenient.” Eighty-two percent consider her “corrupt.” Motives for loathing Clinton have evolved. But the loathing itself has remained constant.
Brian Greene is a 49-year-old accountant and financial analyst who lives in the Chicago suburbs. He was a conservative in the 1990s and despised both Clintons. “I thought she was someone who came off as a bit entitled and kind of full of herself,” he says of Hillary. His view then, he says, was that she was “Bill without the charisma.”
Greene became disillusioned with the right due to the Iraq war; he supported Howard Dean in 2004 and now describes himself as a libertarian-ish liberal. Yet while his politics changed, his aversion to Clinton did not. He actually voted for her in the Illinois primary—Sanders, he says, didn’t seem like a plausible president. But he did so with a complete lack of enthusiasm. Had the Republicans elevated someone “sane” such as John Kasich, he says, he’d return to the GOP in November. “She strikes me as so programmed and almost robotic,” he says of Hillary. “I don’t think her recent move to the left, or being more populist recently, is part of who she is but more of a reaction to Sanders in the race.”
Greene says he’d have preferred to vote for Elizabeth Warren, even though Clinton’s more centrist politics are closer to his own. He’s not sure that likability should matter to him, but it does. “I like to think it’s more about policy and what they do, but for me it’s like, do you want to see this person on television for eight years, or four years,” he says. “For better or worse, the president is someone who represents the country and will be part of your life.”
There are certainly people who don’t like Clinton because they don’t like her record and her proposals. Marcella Aburdene, a 31-year-old market researcher in Washington, D.C., has a Palestinian father and is horrified by what she sees as Clinton’s hawkishness and allegiance to Israel. “She is disingenuous and she lies blatantly, but that’s what a lot of politicians do,” Aburdene says. “It’s definitely more of a policy issue for me.” She plans to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in November.
For many, however, resistance to Clinton goes beyond policy. “It’s not that I just don’t like Hillary’s positions,” says Margo Guryan Rosner, a Los Angeles songwriter (her work has been recorded by Julie London, Mama Cass, and Harry Belafonte, among others) and Sanders devotee. “I don’t like her.” Like many of the people I spoke to, Rosner’s antipathy doesn’t follow a precise ideological trajectory. Now 78, she says her negative feelings about Clinton first arose during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Rosner says she was especially irritated when, in response to criticism of her work at the Rose Law Firm, Hillary said, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”
“That bugged me,” says Rosner. “She was putting down regular women, people who stay home and take care of kids and bake cookies.” It’s not that Rosner was offended on behalf of housewives; she herself has always had a career. “I just thought it was a stupid comment,” she says. “I don’t think she’s as smart as most people think she is, or seem to think she is.”
Rosner also makes a fairly standard progressive case against Clinton. “I don’t like her support for the Iraq war,” she says. “She didn’t support same-sex marriage until it became a popular issue. Her email stuff—she is the only one that would not testify, and I think that’s bullshit. I don’t like her friendship with Netanyahu. I think they’ve destroyed the Middle East with Iraq. I don’t like that she takes money from big banks. She doesn’t support universal health care. For all those reasons. I think she’s more a Republican than a Democrat, and I refuse to vote for Republicans, ever.”
All the same, Rosner says she would happily vote for Joe Biden, who also voted for the Iraq war. In the Senate, Biden was known for his deep ties to the credit card industry, and as a presidential candidate, he didn’t support universal health insurance. “Yeah, Biden does not have all the positions I would like, but he has a certain kind of humanity that touches me,” she says.
Several of the people I spoke to see Clinton as lacking in humanity. It’s not just that they don’t like her—they also feel, on some level, that she doesn’t like them. “I don’t think she has a clue what people in my position need in life and certainly wouldn’t stoop to, quote unquote, my level,” says Mindy Gardner, a 49-year-old in Davenport, Iowa, who works in the produce section of a Hy-Vee grocery store. “If I could make her a profit she’d be my best friend, but I can’t, so she doesn’t know I exist.”
Gardner, who raised two children as a single mother, says she felt vaguely positive about Bill Clinton when he was elected in 1992. In 2008, she supported John McCain, and in this election she’s become a passionate Sanders backer. She sees Hillary Clinton as integral to the economic system that has left her struggling. “I’ve been working since I was 12. It seems like when I was working as a kid, my money went further than it does now as an adult, just trying to feed the kids. I could work 40 hours a week and go live in the Y because that’s all you can afford,” she says.
The Clintons, says Gardner, “removed a lot of sanctions against companies and changed a lot of laws so companies could pay their workers less, fight unions, fight health care.” Employment used to come with security and benefits, she says. “That was just common knowledge, all those things you got when you worked your butt off for a company.” Clinton, she believes, had a hand in taking all that away. “Bill and Hillary’s friends were all rich, they were the ones who owned all these companies, why not use your power to let everyone in your circle get as rich as humanly possible?”
Several of the policies Clinton has put forth would help Gardner. When I ask her about Clinton’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour, Gardner says, “I would like to make $12 an hour, that would be nice.” But it almost doesn't matter what Clinton’s policies are, because Gardner doesn’t trust her to enact any of them. “If she was moving her lips she was probably lying about it,” she says.
* * *
Some who loathe Clinton see her as the living embodiment of avarice and deception. These Clinton haters take at face value every charge Republicans have ever hurled at her, as well as dark accusations that circulate online. They have the most invidious possible explanation for Whitewater, the dubious real estate deal that served as a pretext for endless Republican investigations of the Clintons in the 1990s. (Clinton was never found guilty of any wrongdoing, though one of her business partners, James McDougal, went to prison for fraud in a related case.) Sometimes they believe that Clinton murdered her former law partner, Vince Foster, who committed suicide in 1993. They hold her responsible for the deadly attack on the American outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Peter Schweizer’s new book Clinton Cash has convinced them that there was a corrupt nexus between Clinton’s State Department, various foreign governments, and the Clinton family’s foundation. Most of Schweizer’s allegations have either been disproven or shown to be unsubstantiated, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from invoking them repeatedly. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he accused Clinton of raking in “millions of dollars trading access and favors to special interests and foreign powers.”
As former New York Times editor-in-chief Jill Abramson wrote, “I would be ‘dead rich,’ to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every ‘scandal’ that has enveloped the Clintons.” After all that investigation, Abramson concluded that Clinton “is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” But the appearance of perpetual scandal surrounding Clinton can make it seem as if she must be hiding something monstrous, especially to those who are predisposed against her.
“I think that Hillary Clinton is a sociopath, so I think that her main interest is in her pocketbook, and I think that’s obvious from looking at the Clinton Foundation,” says Uday Sachdeva, a 22-year-old Trump supporter from Georgia who is about to start medical school.
Sachdeva, the son of Indian Hindu immigrants, produces a podcast about sports and politics with a childhood friend, and he offers a precisely detailed—if hallucinatory—Clinton demonology, like a fantasy-football obsessive spitting out statistics. “There’s 47 suspicious deaths around Hillary Clinton. Eleven of them are her personal bodyguards, and you have Bill Clinton’s alleged rape victims,” he says. He lists a number of these figures, explaining the dubious circumstances of their demises. Some of the names are familiar, like McDougal, who died of a heart attack in a Texas prison in 1998. Others are more obscure, at least to anyone who hasn’t put in hours on conspiracy websites.
“Paula Grober, Clinton’s interpreter for the deaf, traveled with Clinton from 1978 to 1992, died in a one-car accident,” Sachdeva says. “There was another one where they found the brakes cut of a motorcycle and he slammed into the back of a truck. That would be Keith Coney.” (According to Clinton conspiracy theorists, Coney, 19, had information about the death of two 17-year-olds who’d witnessed a drug-smuggling operation linked to Bill Clinton.)
“It’s just a bunch of suspicious circumstances that all these people were friends of Hillary Clinton,” Sachdeva says. I asked him where he was getting his information, and he listed a number of sources, including Snopes.com—which has indeedreported on rumors about the Clinton body count but only to debunk them. When I mention this, Sachdeva is unfazed. “I have a propensity to think that there’s a little bit of fire in the smoke,” he says.
Not all the likely Trump voters I spoke to were quite so febrile, but like Sachdeva, they express a loathing that transcends ideology. Denny Butcher, a 44-year-old Army veteran in Raleigh, North Carolina, thinks Barack Obama’s politics are worse than Hillary Clinton’s but finds Obama far more personable. “I was against him from the very beginning, because I feel like he is about as left as left can be, until Bernie Sanders came along,” Butcher says of Obama. “He believes the opposite of what I do on almost every issue.” All the same, he says, “If I met Barack Obama on the street, there’s a good chance I’d say he’s a decent guy. I don’t get that feeling from Hillary Clinton. I don’t feel like she’s a likable person at all. At all. I think she feels like she’s above the law, and she’s above us peasants.”
Butcher was raised to be a Democrat, and he voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. He’s since moved right and voted for Ted Cruz in the North Carolina primary; he plans to vote for Trump in the general. He always disliked Hillary, he says, and his distaste intensified when, as first lady, she was put in charge of health care reform. “I felt like she’s not an elected official and she’s trying to take liberties with a position that was an unelected position. I felt like it was not her job to be involved with legislation,” he says.
In Butcher’s aversion to what he perceived to be Clinton’s sense of entitlement, I started to see how contemporary loathing of Hillary overlaps with the ’90s version. Her enemies’ caricature of her has flipped from Madame Defarge, Charles Dickens’ revolutionary villainess, to Marie Antoinette, symbol of callous aristocracy, but the sense of Clinton’s insulting presumption has remained constant.
Aside from Al Gore, whoever Bill Clinton had put in charge of health care reform would have been unelected; presidents make lots of appointments that have legislative consequences. (No one elected Robert F. Kennedy to be John F. Kennedy’s attorney general.) To me, at least, it sounded as if Butcher was angry that Hillary had stepped outside the role of a typical first lady, that she had transgressed certain gender constraints. But like most Hillary haters, Butcher rejects the idea that gender has anything to do with his antipathy. “Not at all,” he says. “Absolutely not. Nope.”
Also like a lot of people who despise Clinton, Butcher finds her invocations of gender infuriating. “I think she’s trying to tell people, ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman,’ ” he says. “Ignore the fact that I have accomplished practically nothing significant in my whole career in the public eye, but I’m a woman, so vote for me.”
Listening to Butcher brought me back to Rosner. Their politics are very different, but their assessments of Hillary Clinton are strikingly similar. Like Butcher, she’s irritated by what she sees as Clinton’s gender-based pitch. “She’s a grandmother. So am I. Big deal,” Rosner says. Like Butcher, Rosner felt that Clinton had overstepped as first lady. “She and her husband were putting her right out in front, and she didn’t handle herself well,” she says. “She certainly wasn’t a Michelle Obama.” Unlike Hillary, says Rosner, Michelle Obama “seems to say the right thing at the right time, and she is very supportive of her husband and her children, even staying in Washington after they leave office so that one of her children doesn’t have to switch schools. That’s a big deal.” Rosner may be very liberal, but not all our gut reactions are governed by politics.
* * *
It could be that the reasons people give for disliking Clinton have changed simply because she herself has changed. She entered the White House as a brashly self-confident liberal. Early on, some of the president’s advisers sought to undermine her plans for health care reform because they were thought to be insufficiently business-friendly; in response, Carl Bernstein, one of her biographers, quotes her snapping at her husband, “You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics.” Then, after the epic repudiation of the 1994 midterms, in which Republicans won a House majority for the first time since 1952, she overcorrected—becoming too cautious, too compromising, too solicitous of entrenched interests. As she would say during her 2000 Senate campaign, “I now come from the school of small steps.”
In other words, people hated Hillary Clinton for being one sort of person, and in response to that she became another sort of person, who people hated for different reasons. But this doesn’t explain why the emotional tenor of the hatred seems so consistent, even as the rationale for it has turned inside out. Perhaps that’s because anti-Hillary animus is only partly about what she does. It’s also driven by some ineffable quality of charisma, or the lack of it.
No doubt, this quality is gendered; Americans tend not to like ambitious women with loud voices. As Rebecca Traister wrote in her recent New York magazine profile of Clinton, “It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it?” Elizabeth Warren’s forthright authenticity is often favorably contrasted with Clinton’s calculated persona, but when Warren was running for Senate against Scott Brown, she was also widely painted as dishonest and unlikable. (According to one poll, even Democrats found Brown more personally appealing.) This fits a broader pattern. Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, says that women who are successful in areas that are culturally coded as male are typically seen as “abrasive, conniving, not trustworthy, and selfish.”
What’s happening to Clinton, says Cooper, “happens to a lot of women. There are millions of people who will say about another woman: She’s really good at her job, I just don’t like her. They think they’re making an objective evaluation, but when we look at the broader analysis, there is a pattern to the bias.”
Among hardcore Trump supporters, the misogyny often isn’t subtle. The Republican National Convention seethed with a visceral, highly personalized, and highly sexualized contempt toward Clinton. Men wore T-shirts that said, “Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica” on one side and “Trump That Bitch” on the backs. Buttons and bumper stickers read, “Life’s a Bitch: Don’t Vote For One.” One man wore a Hillary mask and sat behind a giant yellow sign saying “Trump vs. Tramp.” Another, an RNC volunteer, was dressed up like Septa Unella from Game of Thrones and held a naked blowup doll with Clinton’s face attached, re-enacting a scene in which Cersei Lannister, a murderous queen, is stripped naked and marched through the streets before jeering throngs. The right-wing fantasy of seeing Clinton degraded and humiliated has rarely been performed so starkly.
Most Americans, however, are not frothing partisans. For many of them, something in addition to sexism is at work in Clinton’s unpopularity—some mystery of mass media connection. There’s a reason actors do screen tests: Not everyone’s charm translates to film and video. For as long as Hillary Clinton has been in public life, people who’ve met in her person have marveled at how much more likable she is in the flesh than she is on television. “What’s remarkable isn’t that she can be funny, spontaneous, and mischievous, and has a loud, throaty laugh; what’s remarkable is the extent to which she has sequestered her personality from the media,” Gates wrote in 1996.
Twenty years later, Traister discovered a similar disconnect. “The conviction that I was in the presence of a capable, charming politician who inspires tremendous excitement would fade and in fact clash dramatically with the impressions I’d get as soon as I left her circle: of a campaign imperiled, a message muddled, unfavorables scarily high,” she wrote. “To be near her is to feel like the campaign is in steady hands; to be at any distance is to fear for the fate of the republic.”
Republican strategist Katie Packer sees parallels between Clinton and Mitt Romney, for whom Packer served as deputy campaign manager in 2012. “In a lot of ways her weaknesses are very similar to Mitt’s weaknesses,” Packer tells me. “She’s somebody who is kind of a policy nerd, somebody who is very solution-oriented. She just does not have great people skills. Because of that, whenever something goes wrong, people don’t give her the benefit of the doubt. They don’t trust her.” Politically, this is a hard dynamic to overcome; Clinton’s efforts to appear relatable only make her seem more calculating. “It comes across as stilted and staged and for a purpose, so it defeats the purpose,” says Packer.
The analogy only goes so far, however, because Romney never attracted the amount of venom that Clinton has, either from within or without his party. Which leads us back to gender. Packer is the co-founder of Burning Glass Consulting, an all-female firm that specializes in helping Republican candidates reach female voters. She has spent a lot of time studying how people react to female candidates. “The benefit you get from being a woman running is, No. 1, you’re seen as more empathetic, more relatable, having deeper feelings about things, not just approaching things in an unemotional way,” Packer says. “And 2, you’re seen as not a typical politician.”
If that’s true, it’s possible that when a woman approaches politics in a coolly pragmatic way—when she shows herself to be, in many ways, a typical politician—it makes people particularly uncomfortable. If Packer is right, not only is Clinton not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave; she’s not behaving the way a woman politician is supposed to behave. She’s not a mama grizzly like Sarah Palin circa 2008 or a brassy dame like former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. “Because she’s not very good at these qualities that are viewed as more feminine, she loses the benefit on that front, too,” says Packer.
For Democrats, the silver lining is that Clinton’s running against Donald Trump. “I think she won the lottery ticket,” Packer says. According to Packer, there’s a way to make independent and moderate Republican women soften toward Hillary Clinton: Go after her husband’s infidelity. “One thing that causes them to come to her defense is when they feel like she’s being blamed for her husband’s bad behavior,” Packer says. Trump has done exactly that, attacking Hillary as an “enabler” of her husband’s sexual misdeeds. “The one Republican who is incapable of not bullying her is going to be her opponent,” says Packer. “The one Republican who is incapable of showing any empathy in his own right is going to be her opponent.”
That makes it more likely that many voters will do what Brian Greene did and vote for Clinton despite their distaste. Should that happen, it remains to be seen if Hillary hatred shapes her ability to govern. Cooper thinks it’s possible that once she’s no longer explicitly competing for power, the widespread public dislike of her might ebb. “When she announces she’s running for something, her unfavorability increases,” Cooper says of Clinton. “When she’s in a role, her favorability starts to creep up again.” Figures from the Pew Research Center bear this out. Clinton’s favorability ratings fell to 49 percent when she was running for Senate in 2000, then went up to 60 percent when she entered office. They’ve fallen below 50 percent during both presidential campaigns but reached 66 percent when she was secretary of state.
“It may be that the moment she starts to claim more power, it elicits a negative response,” Cooper says. We might soon find out if the same thing happens once the power is hers.
For Yahoo, it's nearly all over but the shouting. Final bids are expected Monday in the protracted sale of the core Internet business at Yahoo -- which will also announcesecond quarter earnings late Monday -- and it likely won't be long before we know the fate of both the faded Internet company and its embattled CEO, Marissa Mayer.
When the shouting does come, it's likely to include even more analysis about Mayer's tenure -- what her time at the helm will say about women in technology, what she could have done differently, how she might spend the $55 million in severance she could receive in the event of a change in control. Many will fault some of her big decisions: Big bets that didn't pay off, such as the $1.1 billion acquisition of the blogging service Tumblr, and key hires who didn't pan out. She promised the web browser Mozilla a lucrative change-in-control deal that could cost bidders more than $1 billion, reports say. A Yahoo spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But others will say that Mayer, like other women before her in technology, was dealt a tough hand in the first place, accepting a particularly precarious leadership role often known as the "glass cliff." Research has shown that women disproportionately receive opportunities to lead at difficult times, and the tech sector would seem to have a preponderance of examples.
When Meg Whitman was named CEO of HP in 2011, the Silicon Valley giant was dealing with a string of recent scandals, instability at the top, strategic questions about a spinoff of its PC business and a massive acquisition that would turn out to be ill-fated. When interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned amid a petition for her ouster and uproar over anti-harassment changes she made, the online community's chief engineer said she'd been placed on the "glass cliff." Back in 2001 when Anne Mulcahy was named CEO of Xerox, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and facing an SEC investigation.
But experts on leadership and gender say it's not clear whether the dynamic really does play out more often in tech than in other fields. "We don’t know if women face the glass cliff in tech more than other industries," says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. "If we had 500 women [in tech CEO jobs] it would be a different story. But when so few women get to the top, it's important to look at the individual circumstances in which they're taking the reins."
In fact, it may be that women actually get fewer crisis opportunities, rather than more, among Internet companies. That's because with these firms, the founder is often brought back to lead when the going gets tough. And those founders often happen to be disproportionately male. Think Twitter, Zynga, Tinder and Pandora, all of which brought their founders back to the helm at some point within the past year and a half.
"We can go through the companies that have stumbled, and they nearly all reverted to a white male founder," says Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital and longtime advocate for diversity in the tech industry.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a former Google executive who founded theBoardlist, an online marketplace that connects tech boards of directors with women candidates, said in an interview that in tech, "my presumption is that when the ship is going down, the person on the hook is the founder." Indeed, she said, the number of CEO jobs at bigger Internet companies available to non-founders tend to be somewhat rare -- and often challenging.
"In [Silicon] Valley, the vast majority of large and profitable companies are run by the founder," she said. "What's left has a certain amount of hair on it."
Of course, Yahoo had already tried bringing its founder back to the job -- Jerry Yang ran the company in 2007 and 2008, famously rejecting an offer to be acquired by Microsoft. But even if Mayer's job has frequently been suggested as an example of the "glass cliff," it's hard to see it as a textbook case. Yahoo was struggling long before Mayer took control, and both male and female executives had already been among those tapped to try and right the aging Internet company's fortunes.
Jana Rich, a leading Silicon Valley recruiter, said she's never had boards of directors explicitly ask for, or even hint at, specifically wanting a female candidate at a time when a company is in trouble. But she says she does see women or minorities, who may realize they don't have the luxury of picking and choosing the most plum assignments, put themselves forward more often for particularly challenging jobs. She's careful to say this doesn't mean these candidates are less qualified: "A board for a distressed company is looking for the best possible alternative, and sometimes the best possible alternative is a person who’s willing to take that risk."
Whatever the circumstances may be when women leaders are brought in, Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld says that in the tech field, women are often "given a shorter timeframe to show success," facing potential backlash in a field that's predominantly male. It doesn't help that tech turnarounds are notoriously hard, with all leaders facing the difficult task of fixing a business in an industry known for its hyper-speed rate of change.
Stanford's Cooper says that even if the glass cliff dynamic only affects a few women at the top, the relatively small number of women in top jobs in technology overall means that's "still a large percentage of women." And "when there are so few women in leadership positions, all eyes are on them."
It's hard to imagine what Theresa May must be thinking right now.
Just three weeks ago, she was a low-profile member of David Cameron's cabinet, regarded as a professional and reliable leader in the Conservative Party ably holding a position that's been called a "graveyard for political careers." Less than a month later, Britain has voted to leave the European Union. Cameron has resigned. The man considered the front-runner in the race to replace him decided not to run. The leader of the party that championed Britan's exit from the E.U. has quit.
And now May is poised to become only the second female prime minister in Britain's history on Wednesday, nearly two months earlier than initially expected and at a time when her country is facing a historically tumultuous period on both the political and economic fronts.
Researchers say that leaves her standing on a classic "glass cliff," a phenomenon studied by academics that shows a disproportionate number of women and minorities reaching positions of leadership at particularly precarious times.
Sometimes, the reasoning is that women are set up to fail, pushed into a position of leadership when a fall guy -- or gal -- is needed. At other times, the thinking is the electorate -- whether stockholders or voters -- simply want change, and women and minorities represent that.
Either way, the overall dynamic that's been shown in the research, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, is that women don't just get fewer leadership opportunities. "They also get different kinds of leadership opportunities," she said. "When you look at opportunities for leadership that one might describe as high-risk, women are more likely to be selected into that kind of role."
In the case of Brexit, says Michelle Ryan, the University of Exeter researcher who coined the term with her co-author, Alex Haslam, "what you see is all the men going 'why would we want to stick around for that'? We see Cameron walking away. We see [former London Mayor Boris] Johnson walking away. ... It's not that they want women to fail. It's that they themselves don't want to fail."
Yet because women so rarely get the opportunity to step into key leadership roles, Ryan said, they don't have the luxury of choosing which jobs they want and which they don't. "If they want to have opportunities, they often have to take them when there's some leadership vacuum."
The "glass cliff" phenomenon has often been shown in a business context, and is often raised when a woman is placed into a particularly thorny CEO job, such as after Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors or Marissa Mayer took over at Yahoo. Ryan and Haslam first revealed that companies that put women on their boards were more likely to be coming off of consistently poor performance in the five months prior than those that appointed men. A 2013 study found that among Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities were more likely to be promoted to CEO at companies with weak performance.
And in an experimental study, researchers found a "status quo bias," where people saw little need for a company to change its pattern of male leadership if the company was performing well; only if the firm was in trouble did more people prefer a female leader.
The phenomenon has also been shown in a political context. One study examined the link between female leaders and higher GDP growth in countries with high levels of ethnic strife. Ryan's research has also shown that black and ethnic minorities were more likely to run for parliamentary seats that are "essentially un-winnable or held by the opposition party by a much higher margin," she said.
Of course, the research doesn't mean every time a woman gets a tough job she's being made a scapegoat, or that men don't take on the hard jobs. Hardly. And some research has shown contrary evidence, putting the "glass cliff" in question. Yet the dynamic shows up in fields ranging from politics to sports to business. "When you start to see patterns like that, there is some reality," Cooper says. "It doesn't mean every time a woman gets put up for the job it's the glass cliff. There is always nuance and complexity."
She also thinks it fits well with other research that has shown that selecting womensignals change, and that qualities typically associated with female leaders -- things like collaboration, listening, working in the background, managing people -- are particularly attractive in a crisis. "There's this expression -- think crisis, think female," Cooper says.
But while there's been lots of research exploring the phenomenon of why women might get a disproportionate number of opportunities in a crisis, there's little showing how the most successful ones have handled it. "I don’t know that there’s specific research on how you navigate a particularly sucky leadership opportunity," Cooper says.
Even if there were, the historically massive stakes in Britain right now mean any such precedent would likely pale in comparison. May will need to do all the usual things leaders should do in a crisis: Set expectations appropriately low, make it extremely clear what she's inheriting, and surround herself with a great team, something that seems especially hard amid the country's leadership vacuum. "A whole lot of people want to distance themselves," Ryan says. "Who wants to be on the Brexit team?"
Even then, the task ahead of her has few parallels. This is not the mere turnaround of a company or the management of a minor economic downturn, but the divorce of Britain from a 40-year partnership that will profoundly reshape the country's place in the world and could have significant effects on its economy. It's quite possible, even though Cameron called the referendum which created the current turmoil, that May will be remembered for it. Research indicates that when people are looking for someone to take the blame and operate in the background, Cooper notes, they often seek people with female leadership traits.
Years from now, she asks, will it be Cameron or May who we most associate with Brexit?: "Whose reputation is going to be permanently tied in the country's collective memory? He's exiting off stage pretty quickly. He may have caused it, but she has to fix it."
There are two dominant cultural ideas about the role women play in helping other women advance at work, and they are seemingly at odds: the Righteous Woman and the Queen Bee.
The Righteous Woman is an ideal, a belief that women have a distinct moral obligation to have one another’s backs. This kind of sentiment is best typified by Madeleine Albright’s now famous quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” The basic idea is that since all women experience sexism, they should be more attuned to the gendered barriers that other women face. In turn, this heightened awareness should lead women to foster alliances and actively support one another. If women don’t help each other, this is an even worse form of betrayal than those committed by men. And hence, the special place in hell reserved for those women.
The Queen Bee belief, on the other hand, argues that in reality women just can’t get along. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant point out in their essay in The New York Times on the myth of the catty woman, this belief rests on the erroneous idea that there is something inherent to the female sex that causes women to undermine each other on the job all the time.
The idea of a Queen Bee syndrome dates to research first done in the 1970s. The syndrome encompasses a set of behaviors ranging from women disparaging typically feminine traits (“Women are soooo emotional”), to emphasizing their own “masculine” attributes (“I think more like a guy”), to seeing claims of gender discrimination as baseless (“The reason there are so few women at the top is not because of discrimination. It’s that women are just less committed to their careers”), to being unsupportive of initiatives to address gender inequality. The ultimate Queen Bee is the successful woman who instead of using her power to help other women advance, undermines her women colleagues.
Although these two archetypes (one a model, the other a cautionary tale) seem to be at odds, they overlap in that they both further a double standard—that conflict between men is normal but between women it’s dysfunctional. When men battle it out, they are seen as engaging in healthy competition and vigorous debate. When women do the same things, they are Mean Girls locked in a heated catfight. These perceptions that women are backstabbing and conniving can lead people to believe that workplace disagreements between women are especially damaging. A study found that when a conflict took place between two women coworkers, people expected the consequences to be both negative and long-lasting, for example that the women would want revenge. In contrast, when the identical conflict was between two men or a man and a woman people thought that the relationship could be more readily repaired.
Thus, despite studies showing that men engage in indirect aggression like gossiping and social exclusion at similar or even higher rates than women, it is still widely believed that women are meaner to one another. Such beliefs are so pervasive that even preschoolers think that girls are more likely than boys to engage in relational aggression such as excluding others despite evidence to the contrary. Even the term Queen Bee is gendered. Of course men can be “jerks” or “assholes,” but there is no equivalent term for men who undertake the specific behavior of plotting against their male colleagues to keep them down.
Is there some truth in the Queen Bee stereotype? Are women nastier toward other women than men are to men or than women are to men?
Research on these kinds of behaviors have found instances in which that is the case. For example, a study by psychologists that examined how professors viewed their Ph.D. students found that despite having equal publication records and levels of work commitment, the female professors (but not the male professors) tended to believe that their female Ph.D. students were less committed to their careers than their male students. But this wasn’t uniformly the case. It turns out that it was the older generation of women professors, not the younger generation, who displayed this Queen Bee-like response.
What explains this generational difference? Could it be something about the environment in which the older women pursued their careers that elicited a certain harshness toward their women students? For that older generation, it was extremely rare for a woman to climb the ladder and become a full professor. By the time the younger women arrived, it was much more common. Thus, perhaps it was something about the context in which older women rose up the ranks (fewer women, more barriers, more sexism) that explained their behavior.
Subsequent research has confirmed just that. Queen Bee behaviors are not reflective of some Mean Girl gene lurking in women’s DNA. Rather, to the degree they exist, Queen Bee dynamics are triggered by gender discrimination.
Specifically, studies find that such behaviors emerge when two dynamics come together: gender bias and a lack of gender solidarity, for lack of a better term. When women for whom being a woman is not a central aspect of their identity experience gender bias, Queen Bee behavior emerges.
Here’s why: For women with low levels of gender identification—who think their gender should be irrelevant at work and for whom connecting with other women is not important—being on the receiving end of gender bias forces the realization that others see them first and foremost as women. And because of negative stereotypes about women, like that they are less competent than men, individual women can be concerned that their career path may be stunted if they are primarily seen as just a woman and therefore not a good fit for leadership.
To get around these kinds of gendered barriers, these women try to set themselves apart from other women. They do this by pursuing an individual strategy of advancement that centers on distancing themselves from other women. One way they do this is through displaying Queen Bee behaviors such as describing themselves in more typically masculine terms and denigrating other women (“I’m not like other women. I’ve always prioritized my career”).
The point is, it’s not the case that women are inherently catty. Instead, Queen Bee behaviors are triggered in male dominated environments in which women are devalued.
This kind of response is not even unique to women. It’s actually an approach used by many marginalized groups to overcome damaging views held about their group. For example, research has found that some gay men try to distance themselves from stereotypes about gays being effeminate by emphasizing hyper-masculine traits and holding negative beliefs about effeminate gays. Social distancing then is a strategy many individuals use who are trying to avoid, escape, or navigate the social disadvantage of the group to which they belong.
While social distancing can enable an individual from an underrepresented group to advance, it does a disservice to the group as a whole because it can legitimize inequalities. When a woman expresses a stereotypical view about another woman, it’s not see as a sexist statement but rather as an unbiased assessment, since there is a tendency to believe that individuals cannot be biased against members of their own group. But they often are. Indeed, women too can be misogynists. Thus, social distancing behaviors can reproduce larger inequalities.
So what prevents Queen Bee behaviors? Identifying highly as a woman. Women who have experienced gender discrimination but who more strongly identified with their gender don’t react to such bias by trying to distance themselves from other women. Instead, a study found that policewomen who highly identified as women responded to gender discrimination with an increased desire to create more opportunities for other women.
There is plenty of evidence to show that women do indeed support one another. When women work with a higher percentage of women they experience lower levels of gender discrimination and harassment. When women have female supervisors, they report receiving more family and organizational support than when they have male supervisors. And a preponderance of studies show that when more women are in management positions, the gender pay gap is smaller.
So those Righteous Women are out there, and they are making it better for other women.
At last week’s United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. over 5,000 people (mostly women) convened to focus on what needs to be done to support women and girls around the world. From economic empowerment to ending violence against women, women stood shoulder to shoulder ready to work together to improve the lives of all women. While inside the Summit a “Together, We are Stonger” vibe filled the air, outside the conference hall, in our culture at large, we have a great deal of suspicion about the ability of women to work together.
As I write in the Atlantic, such suspicions can be seen in two different cultural ideas about the role women should play in helping other women advance at work: The Righteous Woman vs. The Queen Bee
The Righteous Woman belief argues that women have a distinct moral obligation to help each other. “This kind of sentiment is best typified by Madeleine Albright’s now famous quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”. The basic idea is that since all women experience sexism, they should be more attuned to the gendered barriers that other women face. In turn, this heightened awareness should lead women to foster alliances and actively support one another. If women don’t help each other, this is an even worse form of betrayal than those committed by men. And hence, the special place in hell reserved for those women.”
The Queen Bee belief, on the other hand, argues that women just can’t get along. As a result of something inherent to the female sex, women always undermine each other. This perspective is echoed in statements like this: “But aren’t women really to blame? The times I’ve been treated the worst at work was at the hands of another woman. Women are their our own worst enemy.” From this perspective, it is Queen Bees (not men) who are really responsible for holding women back.
Both viewpoints reinforce a double standard about conflict – that conflict between men is ordinary, but conflict between women is pathological. In fact, we apparently think it’s so rare for men to undermine other men at work that we don’t even have a word for it. There is no male equivalent for the term Queen Bee.
The stereotype that women are backstabbing and conniving unfairly shapes how we interpret the arguments we see at work. Research finds that when we see workplace conflict between two women we think that the relationship will be more damaged than if the identical conflict takes place between two men. Very likely then we are over estimating that amount of Mean Girl behavior that we think we see.
These kinds of double standards highlight the opposing thoughts we have about women supporting women. We simultaneously think that women have a particular obligation to support other women but that their inherent nastiness will prevent such solidarity from actually happening. So we are left with the following predicament: If women would only help each other, women could be much further along. Too bad they are so catty.
So are women and girls inherently catty? Or is something else going on?
Research on these kinds of behaviors have found instances in which women are harder on other women. But deeper analysis of the Queen Bee syndrome has discovered that far from being a main cause of gender inequality, it is a consequence of gender discrimination.
Women who engage in Queen Bee behaviors are those who experience higher levels of gender bias in the workplace but for whom being a woman is not a big part of their identity. What’s happening in this scenario is that when these women are on the receiving end of gender bias, it comes as a big shock because it forces them to realize that others see them primarily as women, when that’s not how they see themselves.
When people feel that who they are has been inaccurately categorized they experience what psychologists call social identity threat. And the threat triggers a response. Moreover, negative beliefs about women (that they are too emotional or not great leaders) can make many women concerned that being seen as “only a woman” will make it tough for them to advance up the career ladder. In response to the identity threat and as a way to circumvent gender bias, some women turn to a strategy of advancement that is based on distancing themselves from other women. This distancing is evident in things like disparaging other women, seeing themselves as more masculine and not like other women, or dismissing claims of gender discrimination.
Social distancing responses are not unique to women. Rather, it’s a strategy used by many individuals who are members of lower status groups in order for them to individually navigate around the negative cultural beliefs that exist about their group.
To be sure, not all women engage in Queen Bee behaviors. Research has shown that women who highly identify with their gender respond to gender discrimination on the job by wanting to work on behalf of other women. And many studies find that women do support other women. An analysis of high potential employees found that the women were more likely than their male counterparts to be developing other women (73% vs. 30%).
One day it may be the case that gender doesn't matter and all people are treated similarly and have the same opportunities. Until then, for women the message that Together, We are Stronger is absolutely true.