Was Carol Bartz a victim of Silicon Valley sexism?

Faith Merino · September 16, 2011 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/1f08

Is the scarcity of female tech CEOs due to the fact that they're held to a higher standard than men?

The Carol Bartz firing debacle didn’t fail to capture the world's attention last week—due in part to Bartz’s own trademark style of dealing with frustration: swearing loudly.  Immediately after the firing, she took to the press to air her side of the story, calling the Yahoo board a bunch of “doofuses” and saying, “these people fucked me over.”  But one thing in particular about the whole fiasco caught my eye: virtually all of the criticism leveled at Bartz had to do with her mouth.  More than once over the course of Bartz’s time with Yahoo, I’ve seen a blogger or reporter make some joke about Bartz needing a muzzle.  Even Fortune—a renowned and respected business publication—stooped to the “muzzle” joke

As the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world, Bartz fell victim to the same fate that befalls most high-profile women who do something to piss off the masses (in Bartz’s case, it was her failure to pull Yahoo out of the ditch it dug for itself): they’re roundly chastised for their unladylike behavior.

This is particularly true of women in traditionally male-dominated spaces, like business, politics, technology, and manufacturing.  Their “emotional lives” are put under the microscope and they’re characterized as being incompetent because they’re too “emotionally volatile.”  (Don’t even get me started on the pathologization of PMS.)

Take, for example, VentureBeat’s Matt Marshall, who wrote of Bartz’s expletive-riddled interview with Fortune last week:

“It’s sad that in her first interview since the firing, she’s undermining Yahoo — putting her own raw emotions over the company she was previously entrusted to lead.”  He added: “Read the Fortune interview. She unloads everything and doesn’t hold back. It’s very telling. This is truly Bartz’s personality. She regularly comes unglued, and this is not the first time she’s told someone to ‘fuck off’ in public.”

Marshall was referring to the incident in which Bartz told former TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington (who has no shortage of haters) to “fuck off” during an on-stage interview.  Frankly, it was glorious.  If there had been a ticket dispenser, I think people would have been lining up to go on-stage and tell Arrington to fuck off.

But what bothers me about Marshall’s criticism is the overt implication that Bartz’s failure as a CEO has something to do with her emotions.  Saying that she “regularly comes unglued” (while failing to articulate what he means by “unglued”—does that mean dropping F-bombs?  Because if that’s the case, I come unglued all the fucking time) characterizes her as some kind of emotionally frenzied sapling who couldn’t keep it together to run Yahoo.  He ends his article with a particularly patronizing accusation that Bartz is not setting a positive example for other female executives in the tech industry.

Sexism much?

Dirty language in the Valley

Plenty of male CEOs have used far worse language in public.  As I mentioned before, at our last Vator Splash event in San Francisco, ngmoco’s Neil Young took the stage to tell everyone in the room, “Don’t be a pussy.” 

At VentureShift, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure unloaded on-stage: “I’m so fuckin’ tired of being characterized as a spray-and-pray VC.  Why do we invest in a whole bunch of companies?  For the same reason that dogs lick their balls: because we can.”

Did anyone accuse Young or McClure of setting bad examples for other male CEOs/VCs?  No.  Why?  Because no one expects them to be demure, self-effacing, or conservative.  WHY?  Because they don’t have vaginas. 

I’m not criticizing McClure or Young, because quite frankly, they were hilarious.  Young yelled out “don’t be a pussy” in a Scottish accent! 

When they do it, it makes them personable.  But when Bartz (or any other female exec, for that matter) does it, it makes her vulgar and unprofessional.

"Personable" vs. "Competent"

This isn’t just my own supposition.  LinkedIn recently released data that shows that male CEOs tend to have shorter, chummier sounding names, like Bob, Jack, and Fred, while female CEOs tend to have longer, more formal names, like Cynthia, Deborah, and Carolyn.

“Typically hypocorisms, the shorter form of a given name, are used in intimate situations as a nickname or a term of endearment,” said Dr. Frank Nuessel, the editor of NAMES: A Journal of Onomastics. “It’s possible that sales professionals in the U.S. and male CEOs around the world use these shortened versions of their name as a way to be more approachable and accessible to potential clients. Interestingly enough, female CEOs appear to prefer to use their full names and not nicknames, which could signify that they want to be taken more seriously and want co-workers to think of them in a more professional light.”

Or…it could be that women who go by their full, formal names are promoted more often than women who go by shorter versions of their names because they’re perceived as more competent and self-reliant than women who go by nicknames.


High-profile women

Of course, Carol Bartz isn’t the first high-profile female executive to have her unladylike behavior called out in place of real criticism of her performance.  Look at Meg Whitman.  Virtually none of the criticism aimed at Meg Whitman had anything to do with her performance as CEO of eBay (a $4 billion acquisition of Skype?  Really?), but for her allegedly violent temper and aggression. 

And trust me, I’m no fan of Meg Whitman.  But that’s because I disagree with her politics, not the way she handles herself in public or in business.

Nowhere else are gendered double-standards more obvious than they are in politics, a predominantly male-run world.  Remember when Hillary was running?  Where someone like Ron Paul or John Boehner would have been called “assertive” and “authoritative,” Clinton was called “frigid” and “cold.” 

As Sheryl Sandberg noted in a recent TED Talk, "success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women."  She cited the Roizen case, a study in which a Columbia professor took the background and work history of a real Silicon Valley VC, Heidi Roizen, and gave it to two groups of students to evaluate as a potential employer.  But with one group of students, he changed the name "Heidi" to "Howard."  Both groups found "Heidi" and "Howard" to be equally competent, but more students found Howard to be more likable than Heidi.  Those who were given the background of "Heidi" found her to be more power-hungry and self-promoting than those who were given the "Howard" case.

Plenty of male tech CEOs have earned some unsavory reputations.  Jack Dorsey has been rumored to be a veritable slave driver who pushes Square employees to work 12-hour days and weekends.  Our beloved Steve Jobs has been called one of the Valley's "leading egomaniacs” and he was renowned for his aggressive and exacting business personality.

No one holds that against them because that’s what you’d expect from visionaries.  It’s also behavior that’s socially more forgivable in men than it is in women.

Female CEOs are few and far between, female tech CEOs are even rarer, but female CEOs of large technology corporations are virtually non-existent.  Bartz was one of the last in that dying breed.  DeNA CEO Tomoko Namba stepped down in May due to a family health issue, and Meg Whitman left eBay in 2008.

This has a trickle-down effect for other women who want to move up the corporate ladder.  In the average male-run business, female executives make 8-25% less than their male counterparts, but this is not the case in female-run businesses.

“Female executives in women-led firms earn between 10-20% more than comparable executive women in male-led firms and are between 3-18% more likely to be among the highest five paid executives in these firms as well,” said Atul Gupta, professor of finance at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., in an interview with the International Business Times.

Carol Bartz may not have been able to un-sink the Yahoo ship, but she was a ballsy high-powered female tech CEO, and in a more progressive time and place, maybe the criticism she received from the media would have been more relevant to her business practices than her personal character.


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