Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves!

Why it’s easier for a women to get the top job in a recession.

I was drawn to today’s article in the Financial Times about the recent appointment of female CEO’s to two of the US’s biggest defence contractors, joining a third already in place: now three of the top six largest companies in this sector have women in charge. Women are also getting something of a critical mass in senior management roles too and some are even talking of a “revolutionary demographic shift” in management gender in this sector.

I guess the fact that it is a story at all reflects the sad truth that woman are still much less likely to reach these dizzy career heights than their male colleagues. These two women were appointed when the “fiscal cliff” discussions were still in play and at a time when defence industry spending is under scrutiny, as is all US government spending at the moment. The same article quotes research from 2004 that showed, from looking at the top 100 UK listed companies, that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions where there is “an increased risk of criticism or failure”.

So, are women the natural scapegoats of the corporate leadership world, or are they just better suited to more complex leadership positions, where greater ambiguity and risk exists? Or, is something else going on? Well, there is certainly a lot of support for the idea that woman bring a different dimension to leadership; from my personal experience it is often more mature, relationship based, honest, and responsible.

There have of course been some pretty high profile female leaders in technology businesses in the US, but why the US defence industry, and why now? It is very politically incorrect to say it but women are always better at selling things, from ideas to fighter jets, to men and the US military is still very much a man’s world. I think we also need to be aware of the political and positioning significance of doing something different. A new female boss, in such a traditionally male-dominated sector, is symbolic of change and can suggest an acceptance of the need to change. The US defence industry is fighting for market share, and to preserve as much of the enormous revenues that US foreign military intervention has generated of late, and it is going to be a tough fight for a share of a considerably smaller pot in future.

Whilst it would be nice to think that corporate America was wise enough to recognise the particular differences a female leader could bring to a thriving business, these appointments seem to anticipate the changing fate of the sector and the need to be seen to be doing things differently. Whilst these women clearly have merit, the fact that they are women is not just chance.

There is no doubt though that, no matter what the underlying motivations of shareholders in making these appointments, Annie Lennox’s lyrics are even truer today then they were in 1985 when the Eurhythmics first sang them:

Now, there was a time,
when they used to say,
that behind ev’ry great man,
there had to be a great woman.
But oh, in these times of change,
you know that it’s no longer true.
So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen,
’cause there’s something we forgot to say to you.
We say, Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Recessions are not all bad then; economic storm clouds have silver linings for some.


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