Ousted CEO blazed trail in male world

Career: HP's departing chief was gender blind when it came to her own business dealings.

February 10, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

When news broke yesterday that Hewlett-Packard Co. had ousted its chief executive officer, Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina, financial Internet message boards went wild, with the name-calling gender-based, at times even sexual and misogynistic.

While few experts believed Fiorina was fired because she is a woman, her rise, her performance and ultimately her fall at the $80 billion company was watched closely because of that. For some, Fiorina's forced resignation carried significance, specifically because she was one of the most famous women in corporate America.

Her dismissal capped a difficult period at Hewlett-Packard. The computer equipment company has struggled against competitors Dell Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. after its hard-fought $19 billion merger with Compaq Computer Corp. in 2002.

Investors reacted positively yesterday, pushing up the company's stock nearly 7 percent, to close at $21.53 after the announcement, which was made by Patricia C. Dunn, the HP board member who was named non-executive chairwoman.

The company's directors had sought Fiorina's resignation after determining that a change was in the "best interests of the company," Dunn said in a conference call with financial analysts yesterday morning. "The job is very reliant on hands-on execution. And we thought a new set of capabilities was called for."

Fiorina's gender was repeatedly raised in media reports yesterday, pointing out her female firsts, "the first woman to hold all three top posts --- president, CEO and chairman - at a major computer company" and calling her "one of corporate America's highest-ranking female executives."

"I don't think she was terminated in any way because of a gender issue. Had it been a male CEO there, he would have had the same result," said Larraine Segil, a business consultant with Vantage Partners based in Los Angeles.

"But I think because there are so few women in these high profile positions, they are targets for that kind of commentary," she added, pointing to a glut of media analysis about Jill E. Barad, who was ousted in 2000 as chief executive officer at Mattel Inc.

"Many of the comments were about the way she dressed or her makeup and flamboyance. It's similar with Carly."

Being a woman certainly drew attention to Fiorina, 50, the higher up the ladder she climbed, from receptionist at a commercial brokerage to being named Fortune magazine's "most powerful woman in business" six years running.

If she were a man, the spotlight might not have been so bright, some said. And even though women make up 51 percent of the population, they're a minority in corporate board rooms.

With Fiorina out at Hewlett-Packard, there are seven female chief executive officers at Fortune 500 companies.

They are Mary F. Sammons at Rite Aid Corp.; Anne M. Mulcahy, Xerox Corp.; Patricia F. Russo, Lucent Technologies Inc.; Andrea Jung, Avon Products Inc.; S. Marce Fuller, Mirant Corp.; Eileen R. Scott, Pathmark Stores Inc., and Marion O. Sandler, Golden West Financial Corp., according to Catalyst, a research organization. Women represent about 16 percent of the corporate officers of those major companies, up from 9 percent in 1995.

One of the biggest barriers to increasing such numbers is that there's a misperception that "women can't do some kinds of work ... generally jobs with profit and loss responsibility," said Paulette Gerkovich, senior director of research at Catalyst, an advisory organization that encourages more opportunities for women.

"We still unfortunately have the old standby where if a man yells and screams, he's strong and dynamic and if a woman does it, she's a word that's not fit for a newspaper," said Sherry J. Saunders, spokeswoman for Business and Professional Women/USA, a Washington advocacy group promoting equity in the workplace.

When Fiorina was studying for her master's degree in business administration in 1980 at the University of Maryland, College Park, she wouldn't join a women's MBA club on campus because she feared the stereotype, said Rudy Lamone, a former dean of the university's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"I will tell you that Carly Fiorina is someone who believes in meritocracy," Lamone said. "To do the job has nothing to do with whether you're a man or a woman. She's always been that way. ... She believed women ought to compete head on. That's one of the things people admired about her. Carly will never play that card."

But Fiorina herself knew questions about leadership and gender were unavoidable. The controversy flared in a different way last month when Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers drew ire for suggesting in a speech that women's brains may not be wired for math- and science-related jobs.

"Oh, I'm sure I've made my share of [mistakes]," Fiorina said in an October 2001 interview with the Associated Press. "I don't think I've made more than my fair share of them, although I think more has been made of the ones that I've made."

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