Hillary, Marissa, and Ursula – the Week from Hell

This week has been all downhill for three of the nation’s most prominent women leaders. I’m not saying it’s a harbinger. What I am pointing out is how tough still the sledding for women in positions of power and authority.

Not that men have it easy. I have said for years that all leaders in 21st century America live in hard times. *  But, it is also true that leaders of the female persuasion bear a special burden. Their numbers remain uncomfortably small. Their visibility remains inordinately high. And the scrutiny they face remains relentless.

This week’s cases in point:

Hillary Clinton – Bad Week

Spin them as she might, the results of the Iowa caucuses cannot, should not, gladden Hillary’s heart. After prematurely declaring victory she was, but only in the early morning hours, finally, officially, declared the winner. But the margin of her victory was so miserably small that the results were, in effect, a tie. She tied Bernie Sanders instead of reveling in what just a few months ago was anticipated a coronation. At best her road to the White House will be a slog, much longer and harder a slog than she earlier imagined.

Marissa Mayer – Worse Week

President and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has been visibly struggling for years. Hailed at first as fearless pioneer – not only a woman CEO, but of a tech company no less – she quickly ran into trouble for everything from her personal management style to her professional performance. This week is more of the same. Yahoo is set to reveal cost-cutting plans that include slashing 15 percent of its workforce and closing several business units. Moreover, a former Yahoo manager has just gone to court to challenge one of Mayer’s signature policies – an employee rating system that he charges is discriminatory and a violation of federal and California laws.

Ursula Burns – Worst Week   

Ursula Burns is the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company – Xerox. Trouble is Xerox just announced it was splitting up. A deal that Burns made several tears earlier had resulted in steadily declining annual sales – it was, according to one report, a “$6.4 billion mistake.” In sails prominent activist investor Carl Icahn. He inserts himself into Xerox’s governing process and demands radical change. While word is that Burns and Icahn have had a cordial relationship, the fact is that he took over while she stood down. Xerox is spinning off its services business, which is precisely the business that Burns earlier acquired. However you slice and dice it, Burns lost control of her company this week and was humiliated in the process.

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*See Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (Stanford, 2014).

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