The Case for Seeing Sexism in the Carol Bartz Saga

Ousting the CEO of a failing company isn't what makes the move anti-woman

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Given that so few women hold positions of power, when a high-profile woman like Carol Bartz loses her role as CEO of a huge company, thoughts of sexism creep into the conversation. "It's global 'Scapegoat your failure on a woman' day," the Zero Hedge twitter feed lamented. Did she deserve to get canned, or did her gender have something to do with it? The company hasn't fared well under Bartz: the stock hasn't recovered and the board has hired consultants to strategize, so maybe Bartz's ousting had nothing to do with her extra x-chromosome. But even though the company had its issues, there's something that doesn't sit well about this whole Bartz thing, particularly the conversation surrounding her tenure and her departure.

The main argument against the claims of sexism is that Bartz didn't help the company get out of its slump, and thus she deserved the boot. Many argue that it's hard to make a case for keeping her based on her performance. "Her performance has been decidedly bumpy and mostly downhill," explains AllThingsD's Kara Swisher. And, "the stock has been comatose," as Forbes's Jeff Bercovici points out. But there are counterarguments here, too. Bartz didn't actually do that badly, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal explains.

People don't tend to like Carol Bartz, but let's be honest: she milked money from a dying cash cow, exactly like she was supposed to. ... In the ten quarters before Carol Bartz got to Yahoo, the company's net income totaled $1.5 billion. In the ten quarters of her tenure, that number rose to $2.3 billion. That's a 52 percent increase in rough economic conditions and while Yahoo's revenue was falling under competitive pressure from Google and Facebook (among others). Bartz may have never quite figured out what Yahoo was and may have capitulated on its search business, but she made money for the people who hired her.

In other words, Bartz did exactly the job Yahoo hired her to do--people just didn't like the way she did it. That's where the sexism comes in.

As we noted, Silicon Valley rejoiced at the news because nobody liked Bartz--they found her speech "salty" and her demeanor "aggressive." But as Forbes's Jenna Goudreau in an interview with her colleague Jeff Bercovici points out, in a man, these characteristics would garner praise. "I think the sexism argument might also arise because of the conversation surrounding Bartz. Jeff, even you referenced her 'salty' language in the lead of your piece yesterday." A man with a similar tone would not have alienated so many people, continues Goudreau. "Studies have shown that assertiveness in women often reads as aggressiveness (read: 'abrasive,' 'bitchy,' etc.) and in men as strength."

Women face particular challenges when placed in roles that men have traditionally occupied. If she has a manly disposition, like Bartz, the world considers her a bitch. Yet, as Bercovici points out, getting to the top takes that sort of guff. "And I have no doubt her manner was in part a response to swimming in that world and competing with those tough-talking alpha males."

Of course, as Madrigal notes, part of the backlash against Bartz could have come from the job she was hired to do:

No matter Carol Bartz was merely the apparatchik brought in to do the dirty work. She was reminder that the technology business is still a business, not just a strange appendage to the TED conference. And even if she'd been as sweet as Reese Witherspoon, people would have hated her.

That still leaves us back with Bartz having done exactly what she was hired to do, though. And Goudreau makes a powerful point about the same actions being liked or disliked based on whether they're coming from a man or a woman.

Bercovici argues that "the more we enlarge the sample size of female business leaders, the easier it will be to tease out the instances of genuine sexism from those of garden-variety failure." That seems easy enough. But is it? Today both The Wall Street Journal and DealBook referred to female CEO's on Wall Street as endangered species.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.