By Ciro Scotti The 1990s weren't only about smarty-pants prophets of high tech and hey-presto stock-market wealth. A lot of noise was also made during the decade about women executives finally breaking through Corporate America's glass ceiling.
In many cases, the new and more egalitarian companies of the Internet revolution offered them a chance to soar. But female go-getters in traditional industries also began pushing the old boys aside.
That was then. Now, that crashing sound you hear is top women execs breaking glass -- but on their way back down.
It began with the firing of Mattel Chairman and CEO Jill Barad in 2000. After being the subject of a largely laudatory BusinessWeek cover story in May, 1998, and included in Fortune's 50 Most Powerful Women Managers for 1999 list, Barad was out the door. And the female topple from the top doesn't seemed to have stopped since then.
DOWNGRADED HURRICANE. Lucent CFO Debby Hopkins got the boot last May. No. 2 on Fortune's list for 2000, Hopkins was dismissed after about a year on the job. "Hurricane Debby" -- who earned her name at Ford, Unisys, GM Europe, and Boeing -- left with almost $2 million in severance and six months of free help from a PR exec who was supposed to work on her post-ouster image. On Nov. 16, Linda Wachner, the tough-talking chairman and CEO of Warnaco -- once a $2.25 billion outfit that has a foundation in ladies' underwear -- was unceremoniously ousted from the bankrupt company she had built.
Less than a month earlier, Ellen Hancock, chairman and CEO of Exodus Communications, unexpectedly resigned under pressure. Hancock was No. 5 on Fortune's list for 2000 and was cited late that year in BusinessWeek for building a Web-hosting empire. Hancock bailed just before the heavily traded Exodus, once valued at $30 billion, dove for cover in bankruptcy court.
Fortune's No. 6 in 2000 was Mary Meeker, managing director of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and rah-rah Web analyst. She and her prognostications have been pelted with sour grapes since the dot-bomb exploded. In August, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meeker and her company are being sued by burned investors.
NO EASY EXPLANATION. The biggest bellyflop may be just ahead as Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina, the highest-ranking woman in Corporate America and Fortune's Most Powerful Woman for four years running, comes under increasing pressure from both within and without the company. (In a story accompanying Fortune's 2000 list, Boeing CEO Phil Condit said of Hopkins, his former lieutenant: "She could be the next Carly Fiorina." You gotta think Carly Fiorina is praying that she's not the next Debby Hopkins.)
So what, if anything, is happening here? To argue that the old boys who were eclipsed in the Internet fury are back in charge is too easy. Truth is, many male CEOs and top execs are under the same pressures as their female counterparts these days -- and are failing in great numbers, too. Nor is it a dot-com thing. Barad and Wachner were in two decidedly nontech businesses: toys and apparel.
Hubris may have something to do with it. It was such a tough climb for many of these corporate pioneers that maybe they began to believe in their own invincibility. As Jim Collins pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on Nov. 26, being a high-profile woman exec like Fiorina has its dangers: The more outsized your image, the bigger the expectations, and the more dramatic your results must be. And certainly plenty of suits in Corporate America have their knives out -- just waiting for the boss in her Mikimoto pearls and Chanel outfit to fail.
MARTHA LIVES. But the duller truth may be that as women get to the corner office or nearby environs, they begin to behave just like their male counterparts. Some get seduced by the sound of their own voice -- failing to inspire or lead or even manage successfully. Others run into unimagined perils that would stump any leader. Still others plow ahead with vision and fortitude.
Comparing BusinessWeek's Top 25 Managers for years 2000 and 2001, only four names appear on both lists, and one of them is Martha Stewart. Among those who disappeared from one year to the next were Tim Koogle of Yahoo! and Ken Lay of Enron. Man or woman, the higher you climb, the farther you can fall. With David Polek in New York
Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online