How and Why Women CEOs Need To Handle Bully Shareholders

New research shows women CEOs get bullied by shareholders more than men do. Playground wisdom reminds us that if you expose a bully by reporting the behavior, the bully retreats.This may help some women CEOs, who are more likely to be bullied by shareholders than their male colleagues at the same level. A recent study from Arizona State University’s  W. P. Carey School of Business says shareholders try to exert more influence on a company’s board of directors and top management when a woman runs the organization.Christine Shropshire, associate professor of management, said the results were “depressing,” after she “noticed that a disproportionate amount of shareholder activism was aimed at companies with women in charge. The research examined shareholder proposals at Fortune 1000 companies during the time period 2003 to 2013.”“All else held equal,” Shropshire said, “female CEOs have a 27 percent likelihood of facing activism, when their male counterparts have a near zero predicted likelihood of being targeted.”Shropshire added, “Female leadership is often stereotyped as interactive, collaborative and engagement-oriented, while male leadership is typically categorized as authoritative and powerful.” She said, “One reason women come under fire is because activist investors think they’ll be able to sway or bully them more easily.”But there are ways to counter such bullying tactics.Highlighting the efforts of shareholders to the press and gathering support for the female CEO within the organization can help assuage the shareholders and possibly push back against interference. Others agree that shifting the culture to one of support for the CEO so top administration does not tolerate such aggressive action can help.But how is bullying defined, and what can women at the top do about it?It is important to note, we are not talking about sexual harassment, though sexism may be at the root of the bullying. This is more about overt and subtle applications of pressure. Simply put, women CEOs may have shareholders attempt to coerce them into making decisions or implementing action more than shareholders try to influence male CEOs.Keely Rushmore writes in The Guardian, “Bullying does not have a legal definition.” In the United Kingdom, “The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) does, however, provide useful guidance in its publication Bullying and Harassment at Work (pdf). It defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behavior, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”In this country, there is no federal law against bullying, but when related to gender, race, age or orientation discrimination, there may be recourse at schools and workplaces.At the level of CEO, bullying may be less obvious and more about trying to convince a leader to make certain moves or apply pressure so she makes decisions in a certain way. In other words, women CEOs may get targeted to take an action she would not normally take.[bctt tweet=“Women CEOs may get targeted to take an action she would not normally take.” username=“takeleadwomen”]Bonnie Marcus, author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley 2015), writes in Forbes: “Dealing with this bias sabotages the ambition of high-achieving women and causes many to question whether or not their career aspirations are worth the effort. Unless companies take the time to understand what women experience in their organizations, any efforts to retain and advance women will fail.”Marcus added, “Women reported an environment of favoritism, destructive office politics and a lack of recognition, cutthroat environments and unethical behavior.”Women CEOs who are getting pressured need to speak up and try to change the situation. First, they need to know they will be listened to and respected for their disclosure. Negative chatter about unwelcome influence from shareholders is not good for the company culture.“In order for organizations to retain the top female talent pool, companies must understand what these women need to stay engaged and feel acknowledged and supported by their managers for their contributions,” Marcus writes. “Organizations need to let go of assumptions about what generic diversity and inclusion programs look like and design initiatives that specifically meet the needs of the women in their workplace. Designing the effective programs must start with asking women about their experiences and what they need to succeed in that environment.”Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, says female CEOS are treated differently than male CEOs, especially if they fail, according to Laura Sydell on NPR.That could be perhaps a reason that more shareholders and boards interfere with the work of women CEOs.“Because there are so few women CEOs, especially in tech, Cooper says when a Marissa Mayer or Elizabeth Holmes fails it can feed stereotypes. ‘It not only can damage her career just individually for herself,’ says Cooper, ‘but it can actually serve to reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren’t quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions.’”Women CEOs in any industry are still a rarity and while increasing, the number is nowhere near parity. So they are put under a microscope and perhaps also micromanaged.“Female executives landed just 2.8 percent of the new chief executive jobs that opened up last year around the world, according to the analysis of 2,500 global public companies. Put another way, there were 359 open CEO slots last year and women filled just 10. That’s the lowest percentage since 2011,” writes Emily Peck in Huffington Post.Peck adds, “Between the U.S. and Canada, only one woman scored a CEO job: Andrea Greenberg, who runs MSG Networks Inc.““A woman at the top is unusual in big business in the United States and around the world. Only 5 percent of America’s largest businesses have women CEOs, according to several studies,” writes Howard Wolinsky in Managed Care. The health care industry has a higher rate of women in top management than most other industries.“Michael Angelina, executive director of the Academy of Risk Management & Insurance at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, conducted studies in 2013 and 2015 examining the representation of women in the C-suites and on the boards of 100 insurance companies, including 22 in a combined life and health insurance group,” Wolinsky writes. “He found that the insurance industry overall and the health insurance and managed care industry in particular fared better in gender parity than other companies and businesses in general. Angelina’s survey showed that in 2015, 10 percent of top executives (CEO, CFO, COO) of insurance companies were women, up from 6 percent in 2013.”He added, “We also found that 24 percent of executive leaders and 22 percent of board members at the largest health insurers are women.”The health care sector has a majority population of female employees, and perhaps that is why management has a higher percentage of women than in other sectors.“Buck Luce, who also teaches a course titled ‘Women and Power’ at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs, says it’s important for the leadership of any company, including health insurers and managed care companies, to mirror the company’s market so executives ‘really understand the unmet needs and customer preferences of both the current and future market,’” Wolinsky writes.Regardless of the industry, respect for the position of CEO needs to be place, whether the c-suite is occupied by a man or a woman.[bctt tweet=“Regardless of the industry, respect for the position of CEO needs to be place.” username=“takeleadwomen”]“Women are still essentially locked out of the most powerful jobs in the country, according to a study released by Strategy&, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting business,” writes Peck in HuffPo. “ More than one-third of new CEOs will be women by 2040, the consulting firm predicts in its report, citing inevitable social forces.“That is 15 years after Take The Lead’s mission of gender parity by 2025. And 20 percentage points short.