It’s rare that we get a female CEO.
But it’s even rarer to see another woman follow her into the C-suite.
In the history of the Fortune 500, a female-to-female CEO succession has only happened three times: in 2009, when Ursula Burns followed Anne Mulcahy at Xerox; in 2011, when Sheri McCoy took over Avon Products from Andrea Jung; and in 2017, when Debra Crew became CEO at Reynolds American, taking over from Susan Cameron.
So why is it so rare to see a woman promoted to the role after another female CEO’s departure?
Part of this, says Christy Glass, professor of sociology at Utah State University, can be blamed on the high visibility — and accompanying scrutiny — that follows women into the C-suite.
In addition to balancing so many different expectations and battling employees’ prejudices, some female leaders fear promoting women behind them could be seen as “bias” or “having a feminist agenda,” according to Glass.
“These women are extremely aware of the scrutiny they face,” Glass says. “To the extent that they become strong advocates for women, they face potential bias that they’re not as committed to the organization overall and that instead they have this equity agenda. I think it’s problematic.”
Research also shows that when a woman or minority CEO takes control of a company, white male managers may actually withhold their support from female employees, essentially weakening the pipeline of diverse talent that could one day take over.
“They face this perfection standard,” Glass says. “They have to be flawless because of the level of scrutiny, and any mistakes are not only blamed on them, but sometimes blamed on women generally … I think it’s really difficult for those high-profile women to really be vocal advocates of other women. I think they’re in a double bind.”
Asking the wrong question
People are approaching this problem from the wrong angle, says Heather Foust-Cummings, senior vice president of research at Catalyst, a non-profit studying women and work.
“I think it’s a far more compelling question — and it gets more to the root of what I think the real problem is — if we ask ‘Why is it that men are not developing succession planning and placing women in the CEO seat?'” she says.
And in many companies, female CEOs aren’t even the ones preparing succession plans. Instead, that work falls to the board of directors — many of which struggle with their own lack of diversity.
“One thing we heard from a lot of our respondents is that board diversity really matters,” Glass says. “It mattered for their promotion and it mattered for equity overall.”
In expecting female CEOs to be the only ones who tap women, Foust-Cummings says, we’re only perpetuating the stereotypes female CEOs already battle.
“It’s really difficult when a woman CEO is being held to all these standards that the men are held to, and then, on top of that, essentially we’re asking them to be responsible for carrying an entire gender with them,” she says. “They’re the ones who are supposed to promote and develop and have women succeed them — but we’re not asking the same of men.”