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The Main Talking Point Against Carly Fiorina Is Wrong

Carly Fiorina CREDIT: AP/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL
Carly Fiorina CREDIT: AP/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL

As she announces her bid for president, Carly Fiorina’s biggest asset is also her biggest liability: her time as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

One of Fiorina’s biggest life accomplishments was being named to that chief executive position, which made her the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company, and is likely to be at the center of her campaign. “HP requires executive decision-making and the presidency is all about executive decision-making,” she told CNN.

Her tenure was marked by struggle, including the layoff of 30,000 people, and she was eventually pushed out. Those struggles are already being raised as a reason to doubt her ability to lead the country as president. “She did damage to a great company and I don’t want to see her do damage to a great country,” said Jason Burnett, the grandson of the late HP co-founder David Packard.

But they weren’t necessarily troubles of her own making. Fiorina was appointed to the position of CEO in 1999, just as the tech bubble of the dot-com era was bursting, hurting most technology companies and destroying many. On her own website, she writes, “Hewlett-Packard recognized the tremendous challenges facing their company and asked Carly to be their new chief executive.”

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Fiorina’s appointment to that historic role as trouble hit is not unique. Multiple studies have found that women are far more likely than men to get a chance at the top job when companies are facing significant struggles than when times are good. White men tend to keep control of top positions during smooth sailing, but challenges can make companies feel the need to try to shake things up and try something different, which can mean turning to women for leadership. But that means women are set up with a more difficult job from the get go.

Some are still able to engineer turnarounds. But if they aren’t able to do so and do it quickly, they run the risk of being pushed out of their positions. Female CEOs are more likely to end up forced out of their jobs than men.

That’s what happened to Fiorina: she was forced to resign in 2005. Her tenure was certainly mixed. The company’s revenue more than doubled, but the stock price fell by 50 percent and net earnings also fell. The decision that seems to have led most directly to her downfall at the company was the acquisition of Compaq, which led to HP being the world’s largest computer manufacturer for a time but which was opposed by the company’s board. She “simply did not have the skills to manage one of the world’s largest technology companies,” former Compaq chairman Ben Rosen wrote in 2008, even while noting that the merger “turned out to be a sensational combination” and the company’s stock has far outpaced rivals since.

Once women and/or people of color are forced out of leadership positions they gained during times of trouble, another trend crops up: the white male savior. White men are likely to replace them if performance declines under their tenure. This is again Fiorina’s story, as she was replaced by Mark Hurd. Hurd also oversaw big layoffs — 15,200 people — and implemented deep cost cutting measures. He struggled to produce financial results later in his tenure but was forced to resign over a sexual harassment charge filed against him and the company by a female contractor.

Fiorina’s not the only woman who has been put on the glass cliff. During the same tech bubble burst, Patricia Russo was appointed CEO of Alcatel-Lucent and when she couldn’t improve its performance, she was replaced by a man. Xerox’s first female CEO took over when the company was $17 billion in debt. Sunoco’s first female CEO got her job after shares had fallen 52 percent. Mary Barra became the first woman to run a global car company just as its massive airbag scandal hit. It’s one part of the dearth of women at the top, where less than 5 percent of the biggest company CEOs are women.