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Sally C. Pipes - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Sally C. Pipes is President and CEO, Pacific Research Institute [go to Pipes index]

There's No Glass Floor
HP's Carly Fiorina…

[Sally C. Pipes] 3/11/05

When Carly Fiorina was recently terminated as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, the world's second-largest computer company, it renewed charges that a glass ceiling and gender gap keep women down. That is a strange response to this case, and more evidence that gender nonsense still holds sway.

When Hewlett-Packard brought Carly Fiorina aboard as CEO in 1999, there were two other women at the top of Fortune 500 companies. Fiorina herself downplayed that reality, and told reporters that "I hope we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling." Certainly no such obstacle prevented her rise to a position for which she was not ideally suited.

Her bachelor's degree from Stanford, for example, was not in computer science or engineering but medieval history and philosophy. She went on to earn degrees in business and management, one from MIT, but her subsequent career was in sales and marketing at AT&T. She held important posts at Lucent Technologies for a decade but Carly Fiorina was the only candidate for the Hewlett-Packard job without direct experience in the computer business.

She got the job anyway, confirming her belief that there is no glass ceiling. Indeed, she became a celebrity, the world's most prominent female executive, praised as a glamorous and tech-savvy savior of the industry. She even put herself in H-P's television commercials. A CEO position, however, includes no guarantee of success. In business, it's all about performance.

Carly Fiorina's style, according to reports, was on the confrontational side. She fought with major shareholder Walter Hewlett, son of company co-founder William Hewlett, over the merger with Compaq. According to reports, Fiorina was not fond of delegating tasks to other executives. The company's board brought this up with her and according to a longtime observer of Hewlett-Packard, she "adamantly refused and drew a line in the sand." Then there was the all-important question of the bottom line.

During Carly Fiorina's tenure as CEO, the company's stock price declined 18.2 percent. The company's board opted to let her go, albeit with a severance package worth a reported $21.1 million. Quickly the gender mills began cranking out the boilerplate about how many corporate positions are held by women, and how nefarious male "networks" exclude women from golf, drinks after work, and so on. It was meaningless before Carly Fiorina became H-P boss and it is meaningless now.

By all appearances, the Fiorina case has caused the gender mavens to alter the very definition of the glass ceiling. It used to mean that women should have top jobs in proportion to their numbers in the population, a politically correct view that discounts personal differences, effort, and the choices that women make. In addition to the quota concept, the glass ceiling now apparently means that women are to be kept in top positions whatever their record as a leader, and regardless of whether, on their watch, the performance of the company suffers a decline.

One of the few sensible observations came from Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research. Hadary told reporters that she was delighted that a woman had achieved such a high post and then lost it after being held to the same standards of performance that lift and sink men. In other words, in the business world there is no glass floor, either. And that is the way it should be.

Other women are doing well in the top job, such as Anne Mulcahy at Xerox and Patricia Russo at Lucent Technologies. Still others will surely rise to CEO positions and others will surely fall, something that happens to men every day. When a woman can fall from such a high post without a rash of hand-wringing opinion pieces, we will know that the gender nonsense has abated and that common sense prevails.

Judging by the H-P case, that time has not yet come. And as for Fiorina, despite a lack of experience in banking, she is now in the running to be the next president of the World Bank. tRO

copyright 2005 Pacific Research Institute




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