Women in charge at Xerox

As we accumulate material on women in positions of workplace authority, the issue of female top executives comes up. Xerox is one highly visible case. Here are some notes.

By my sophisticated reading of stock price history at Yahoo!, the value of Xerox’s stock fell more than 75% during the 9 years the company was run by Anne Mulcahy, while the S&P 500 fell about 40%. Still, she was credited with leading the fabled “turnaround” at the company, meaning they reached bottom while she was in charge and then turned profitable again. Now the NYTimes profiles her successor, Ursula Burns, who took over last summer.

Despite her relationship with Mulcahy, to hear Burns tell it, she initially rose at Xerox by serving as executive assistant to a series of men, though later her relationship with Mulcahy was pivotal.

Mulcahy worked her way up through human resources at Xerox (where her older brother was a longtime executive), a common occupation for female managers. From that experience, she did not develop into a radical egalitarian, reflecting:

I think sometimes companies get confused with egalitarian processes that they think are the fairest, and that is not what companies need. Companies need to be very selective about identifying talent and investing in those leaders of the future.

Mulcahy is credited with overseeing early work-life experiments when she was in HR at the company, which reportedly served as an unnamed model for the books Finding Time, and Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work. Such experiments reflect the reform-minded view that modern corporations need not be essentially masculinist.

Whatever the merits of those programs, of course, Mulcahy did preside over the “first woman-to-woman transition at a Fortune 500 company,” and Burns is the first Black woman in such a position. And as such success is measured, Xerox claims a good record at the top, with women holding 32% of both executive and professional positions in the U.S. in 2007. Still, I don’t know what benefits have reached those lower down.

Those who have rigorously studied corporate diversity programs report mixed success at best, at least when it comes to diversifying management, although there is always something to cheer for. With regard to the gender of leaders, Matt Huffman and I are among those who have found evidence for an egalitarian effect of female managers on those below them, but we have not studied executives at the highest levels, where the high visibility and shareholder profit demands could have good or bad results — and where gender integration has stalled.

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