Skip to main content

Why Female CEOs Are More Likely to Be Fired

The pattern holds even when their firm is performing well.
Businesswoman corporate woman

Female CEOs are approximately 45 percent more likely to be dismissed than male CEOs, researchers report.

It wasn't easy, but you did it: You broke through the glass ceiling. Having worked your way up to chief executive officer of the company, you can be forgiven for believing that you've conquered corporate sexism.

In fact, though, you should watch your back. Thanks to the old boys' network, and/or the mindset it embodies, your time at the top could be cut short.

New research reports female CEOs are far more likely than their male counterparts to be fired from their jobs. The study further finds that, while a solid company performance tends to protect male CEOs from dismissal, it does not have the same effect for women.

The findings "point to the extra pressure and scrutiny directed at women in senior leadership positions," said Vishal Gupta of the University of Alabama, a co-author of the study. "Women face difficult barriers and obstacles [in terms of hiring and promotion], but they also seem to continue to face additional challenges, even after reaching the top of the corporate hierarchy."

For the study, published in the Journal of Management, Gupta and his colleagues combed through media reports to compile a database of CEOs who were dismissed between 2000 and 2014. "We classify a CEO departure as a dismissal when it is reported that the CEO is fired or forced out, or resigns or leaves as a result of policy differences or pressure," they explain.

Using that criteria, they found 2,416 CEOs who left their positions. Of those, they classified 641 as dismissals. While women made up only about 3 percent of the CEOs in the sample, they were dismissed at a higher rate than men, with 5 percent getting shown the door compared to 3 percent of their male counterparts.

"Female CEOs are approximately 45 percent more likely to be dismissed than male CEOs," the researchers report. "Perhaps more importantly, we find that while the rate of male and female CEO dismissal is similar when the firm is performing poorly, female CEOs are significantly more likely to be dismissed than male CEOs when the firm is performing well."

While the reasons for specific firings obviously vary, the researchers point to several societal problems that help explain this troubling trend.

"Minorities such as female CEOs often experience enhanced visibility and attention, exaggerated stereotypes, and heightened monitoring and scrutiny," they write. In addition, "cultural stereotypes associating leadership with masculinity can undermine evaluations of women's competence and ability to lead."

Given these pernicious preconceptions, the researchers suggest that current and aspiring members of corporate boards of directors would benefit from "gender-sensitivity training focused on reducing bias in the board's assessment of senior managers."

"Although it has long been recognized that gender stereotypes give rise to biased judgments and decisions, impeding women's advancement," the researchers conclude, "our results suggest gender stereotypes may also result in women being pushed out of their leadership roles even after they reach the highest position in the firm."

Breaking the glass ceiling is bruising work, but the cuts from the shards as you're plummeting back down may be the most painful of all.