Appointing women to run companies is the smart, safe bet

Appointing women to run companies is the smart, safe bet
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Denise Morrison has “abruptly resigned” from her job as CEO of Campbell’s Soup. Most likely, she was forced out after years of poor performance, in the wake of a slumping stock price and a disappointing quarter.

That’s a good thing, not that I ever celebrate someone losing his or her job. But boards of directors need to hold women in senior corporate positions to the same high standards as men, and to have confidence that if someone isn’t pulling his or her weight, he or she can be fired.

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Morrison headed Campbell’s for seven years, during which time the giant food company saw sales drop and profits turn to losses. It’s a tough business. According to an analyst at JP Morgan, she is one of 15 CEOs to leave a major food company since the beginning of 2016.

 

Hershey’s, Kellogg's and General Mills have all lost their top managers in recent months. Morrison is not exceptional, and that’s how it should be.

That’s especially true today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As millions have marched and protested in recent months, decrying the “wage gap” and unfair treatment, and as more men have come under fire for sexual harassment, women may see their fortunes improve. More will likely be promoted; already there are signs this is happening.

Why? Is contrition sweeping the nation, with board members and authorities trying to make up for past slights? No. Here’s the truth: Today, women are a safer bet than men. Putting a man in a top slot in the current environment is a perilous undertaking.

Just as he settles into his new role, a fellow may be hit with unforeseen accusations of wrong-doing that, in today’s climate, can lead to immediate dismissal or a “leave of absence.” That is unlikely to happen to a woman.

The #MeToo movement may therefore accomplish what years of jawboning has failed to do: We may actually, finally, see the ranks of C-suite females increase.

Just recently, for instance, Penny Pennington was promoted to be Edward Jones’ managing partner, the first woman to lead a top brokerage firm. The Fortune 500 firm, with revenues of $7.5 billion and with client assets of more than $1 trillion, is a leading retail firm.

Pennington joined Edward Jones in 2000 as a financial advisor and had risen through the ranks. From all appearances, she is a great candidate for the job, but there are 19 people on the firm’s management committee. She wasn’t the only choice, but she is surely one of the safest.

Similarly, Suzanne Scott was recently tapped to lead Fox News, the first woman to take charge of Fox and the first to run a major cable television network. Fox has seen numerous top executives and on-air personalities leave over accusations of sexual misconduct.

Putting a woman in the top slot, even one who has been with the company for some time, makes an important statement and is a safe bet.

Earlier this year, Kathleen Furey McDonough was elected to chair the executive committee of Potter, Anderson and Corroon, one of Delaware’s largest law firms. She is the first in the prestigious company’s 192-year old history, and the first to lead any Delaware law firm. She is a nationally-recognized labor lawyer, well-versed in sexual harassment issues.

Though McDounough’s headlines are not as bold, her elevation is notable, given a pervasive gender imbalance in the legal profession. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company and Thomson Reuters group, nearly half of all attorneys at the junior and senior associate levels are women, yet only a quarter of senior executives at law firms are women. That may change.

Women are also being promoted in government agencies. Gina Haspel, for instance, just became the first female to head the CIA. Haspel’s credentials and background were outstanding, and the intelligence community was unanimous in their support, with even the severely anti-Trump, former CIA Director John Brennan approving the appointment.

Haspel may have been the obvious choice, having been the deputy director under her predecessor Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIn Afghanistan, give peace a chance — and a lot of time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Mystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia MORE, but the pick was controversial, with Democrats critical of Haspel’s past involvement with now-unlawful enhanced interrogation activities.

The Trump administration doubtlessly chose Haspel for her character and competence. It doesn’t hurt, though, that she is unlikely to be upended by charges of sexual misbehavior such as those that toppled David Petraeus, an earlier CIA chief.

The advancements being made by women are not always visible. In the tech world, for instance, which is widely viewed as embracing a frat-house culture, there are a growing number of women taking on the job of chief operating officer (COO), poised to lead companies in the future.

In the past year, Fortune reports at least six women have taken on the COO role at Gusto, Airbnb, WeWork, Birchbox and Compass, for instance.

In Silicon Valley, which has seen a high number of sexual misbehavior scandals and the departure of senior executives charged with misconduct at Uber, Social Finance, 500 Startups, just to name a few, being a woman has to be a positive.

Fewer than 5 percent of S&P 500 companies have female CEOs; about 15 percent of executive positions are held by women. There are many reasons, some completely legitimate, why so few women attain the C-suite.

Today, those reasons may become secondary to the widespread need to safeguard against charges of sexual harassment in the workplace. Boards and officials may decide that, given two equally worthy candidates for a top slot, a woman is less likely to run into unforeseen problems.

That’s the good news. It is also good news that those same decision makers, as in the Campbell Soup case, are not afraid to reverse course.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. For 15 years, she has been a columnist for The Fiscal Times, Fox News, the New York Sun and numerous other organizations.