Want to Avoid Scandal at the Top? Hire a Woman!

There’s an antiquated quip / greeting-card slogan / bumper sticker that says, “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” I say “antiquated” because in 2011, we all know that very often — let’s say half the time — the best person for the job is a woman. That’s far beyond “sometimes.” But there’s one job-related talent that seems to make women especially qualified for positions of senior leadership, and that is their apparent ability to avoid bringing themselves, and their organizations, into disrepute by involving themselves scandals.

See this story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for the NY Times: When it Comes to Scandal, Girls Won’t Be Boys

Female politicians rarely get caught up in sex scandals. Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soul mates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John) or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace….

Now, Stolberg’s piece is about male vs female political leadership. But the same point can be made in the corporate world. What do the names Skilling, Madoff, Boesky, and Hurd all have in common? Well in addition to referring to persons implicated in major scandals, they all have the title “Mr” in front of them. Indeed, it’s relatively hard to name a female CEO or other senior executive who was culpable in a headline-making scandal. Martha Stewart’s name comes to mind, but her insider trading had nothing to do with her executive position. (And sure, Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Productions, gave Jenny McCarthy her own TV show, but that’s a different kind of scandal.)

Of course, we have to be careful with letting anecdotes stand in for stats, here. The first and most obvious reason why my male CEOs are involved in more scandals is because there are more CEOs. According to the Globe and Mail, “Only 17 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada’s top 500 private and public sector companies are female.” According to Catalyst (a nonprofit aimed at expanding business opportunities for women), only 30 of The Financial Post 500 companies are headed by women. In the US, the numbers seem even lower: as of 2009, there were just 13 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Still, it does seem that males are liable to be involved in scandals out of proportion to their statistical dominance in the C-suite. Male CEOs seem more likely to behave badly than female ones. Does this have anything to do with the documented correlation between testosterone and financial risk-taking? Hard to say. But it wouldn’t be that surprising if a tendency toward risky behaviour in one domain were correlated with a tendency toward risky behaviour in another.

So should boards of directors actually discriminate against men, given the male tendency to become embroiled in scandals? No. For one thing, the fact that “more” male CEOs than female CEOs seem to get into hot water has to be put into context: very few CEOs of either sex get themselves into the kind of trouble that makes headlines. So to say that men are more likely to get into trouble is like saying that the risk of getting hit by lightning is higher than the risk of shark attack: both risks are in fact tiny. And besides, we probably don’t want to advocate discrimination against individuals based on their membership in a group that merely has a statistical tendency towards a particular weakness. But then again, such a statistically-driven hiring bias might well be better than the entirely baseless bias that results in their being so few female CEOs in the first place.

1 comment so far

  1. Katy on

    Loved this post, but I have to speak up on one thing.

    Biasing upper management towards women for that reason would also set up a double-standard. It reinforces the idea that women are expected to keep in line, well… simply because they are women. Thus making it slightly more excusable for men to give in to their “natural weakness,” while women “ought to know better.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: