Are women taking the jobs no man dares to?

By Inmaculada Martinez on July 19th, 2012

In August 2010, HP put the last straw on its investors’ backs: this time, stock was dumped like it was going out of style, forcing the board to fire its chief executive after 11 months of strategic shifts and slashed forecasts. Many wondered who would be approached to take the top job and for what sort of package, if money could buy a future hopeful’s soul.

Rumours about candidates turning the job down because it was “not worth the money” soon appeared in the media. The vacancy in question followed an array of previous HP executives who had turned the bluechip firm into a Kennedyesque saga of tantrums, espionage, adultery and incompetence. The corporate world, created by and for men, is driven by power, money, or both.

Whitman obviously wasn’t driven by the latter, since one can reasonably assume that the company’s balance sheet could not afford too big a remuneration extravaganza. So she was closer to be driven by power, something not dissimilar to what drives people into politics. As she had recently ceased chasing the California governorship, a job that required her to be trusted with fixing the budget and electricity crises that the incumbent had left behind, the path ahead at HP was almost a mirror image. Why not take the hideous job that no one wanted?

Whatever hopes and desires Whitman harboured in her heart then, and whatever remaining strength of character and leadership she’s got left these days, she is probably relieved to know that she is not the only female to have accepted a mad job in the Valley. On Monday, a younger daredevil agreed to helm another ailing tech house of horrors. Her name is Marissa Meyer, and she is pregnant.

The press is still coming to terms with the happy announcement. Taking over a kingdom in decline like Yahoo! as its fifth leader in five years while expecting a baby is bound to attract eyes closer to Mayer that the company’s board will be comfortable with. Moreover, this is corporate America, not Europe, where our women politicians take their babies to work at the EU parliamentary sessions.

But, parking personal circumstances aside, one has to wonder if the job at Yahoo! was the only option for Mayer, as, almost a year earlier, HP was likely the only choice to take for Whitman. Are women being left with the jobs that no man would touch with a barge pole? And if so, what insights can one garner from the situation?

With Whitman and Mayer, a pattern emerges that steers us away from the traditional path to glory mapped out by recent female corporate execs: Nooyi at PepsiCo, Burns at Xerox, and Rometty at IBM. Most female chief executives have been promoted through the ranks after years of service.

Putting more women on the chair is a tactic that should be driven by quality rather than volume. As a woman executive, I’d like for women to be in key positions of power, not just to balance the stakes proportionately. A board room is not about ratios of representation.

After Apotheker, I would make it compulsory that a Chief Communications Officer is appointed to every board to avoid the investor confusion that his announcement created. A board is about who calls the shots, who’s got friends in the largest investor, and who can protect you from inner-circle decisions that have very little to do with manufacturing chips, screws or computers.

Whitman and Mayer are not the only ones coming to save the house after some naïve executive thinks he’s qualified for the task ahead and ends up destroying shareholder value.

Should women learn to become “turnaround” executives? Will this be the fast-track path to the corporate leadership role? It certainly seems so of late.

Christine Lagarde taking the job at the IMF after its chief executive and future French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn was caught with his trousers down for the upteenth time was not a walk in the park either, considering the state of world economics and the flagrant Euro debt crisis.

Women are practical. Most women decide not to take managerial responsibilities because juggling corporate politics for more money is not worth the hassle when one has to also moonlight as a mother and homemaker. Most men do not want the role either, and would rather continue performing than manage people, sit in meetings with people who love the sound of their own voices and network. But men take management roles because it is the only way to see their wages increase.

The question today, when, in light of Mayer’s appointment, I have been again interviewed to give an opinion about why more women are not on boards, is not whether more women are absent from executive roles because men prevent them from succeeding. It is why, in the corporate world, one has to go up the ladder in order to earn more money. From what we have seen recently at major household names like Kodak, reaching upwards is no guarantee for one’s skills and achievements.

The position of chief executive is the final destination for people who like power and money and are prepared to play the dirty, exhausting, lifeless game to achieve and maintain it. In spite of great people in the core of the business, boards have recently been caught destroying shareholder value because their eyes were off the ball and were focused on peripheral ephemera, like who’s got the biggest office, how to renegotiate stock options, who can help survive the next 18 months of contract and which investment bank one needs to befriend.

Should we question if corporate structures today are what needs changing, before we create laws, then brainwash and confuse everyone with a message that declares gender to be the problem when, in truth, the real obscenity is the framework in which people are forced to progress professionally and economically in the corporations of the twenty-first century?

The system is broken, but not in the way most people imagine.