It’s been a bad week for women leaders. Two of the most prominent – Katherine Archuleta, Director of the Federal Office of Personnel Management, and Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit – were summarily told to resign. (That’s leaderspeak for they were summarily fired.)
Only last Thursday Archuleta had rebuffed demands that she resign in the wake of revelations relating to a major breach of private information her agency was supposed to protect. But by Friday morning the pressure on her grew too great – she went to the White House personally to submit her resignation to the president.
Pao, in turn, was in the news only recently for having filed a lawsuit against her former employer in a major gender discrimination case. While she lost the case, Pao was widely praised for having drawn nationwide attention to the perennial problem of diversity, specifically in Silicon Valley. Soon thereafter, however, over at Reddit, the social media site where she had worked for two years, Pao faced a revolt, supposedly for having dismissed an employee who was especially well-liked. Things got to a point where some 213,000 people signed a petition calling for Pao’s resignation! Finally she too had no choice but to resign which, also on Friday, she did. For her to stay on as chief executive officer became impossible.
The two cases are more different than similar. But the similarities between them are worth noting. In both cases the women in question had been leaders of their organizations for brief periods of time – less than two years. In both cases the women in question could be considered dismissed for cause not directly of their own making. In both cases the women in question resisted the pressure to leave as long as they reasonably could. And in both cases the women in question worked in a context within which women at the top were a rarity.
It is widely acknowledged that gender played a major role in what did and did not happen to Ellen Pao. It is less widely acknowledged that in virtually every other case in which there is a woman at the top – whether in government, business or anywhere else – gender remains a factor. So long as the number of women at the top of the greasy ladder remains so small they will have a harder time than men navigating the shoals.