An interesting pairing of events has occurred recently which brings up a good question. On the one hand, the first prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, lost her position in a barrage of what appear to be just poor decisions, bad timing, and bad communication. While she herself has argued that it’s more than just gender, others have decided to make it an example of how female leaders are set up to fail. Ms. Gillard stated, ” The reaction to being the first female PM does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.”
At the same time, Marissa Mayer celebrated her first year as CEO of Yahoo! on July 16th. For the most part, she has been successful, even with some tough press regarding some of her more aggressive decisions (like bringing workers back into the office). Yahoo!’s stock (sorry—the brand and the apostrophe just look silly don’t they?) has risen over 70% since she has taken the helm and although Yahoo! is still not a major threat to Google, she is also only a year in. Her focus has been on culture change but she has managed to shore up earnings at the same time. That’s pretty impressive.
So, is the failure of Gillard a result of gender? Is the success of Mayer a result of gender? Is it possible to even tell?
The problem with a bully pulpit is that it always oversimplifies the situation. To imagine the Ms. Gillard failed only because the system defeats female leaders is to ignore all of the other elements that play a role in a leader’s success. To imagine that Mayer has been successful, even though she is a woman, is the same type of limited thinking. Of course these leaders have had to deal with specific constraints and battles because of their gender, but they have also battled against market and political forces that are gender neutral.
To reduce the debate to a single factor, whether it is gender, generation, ethnicity, whatever not only oversimplifies the situation but it takes away from the true leadership abilities of the person in question. Gillard may turn out to be a strong politician and moving force in Australia yet…she’s fearless and focused. Mayer may yet struggle, but she also has strong capabilities for which she deserves credit regardless of gender. We need leaders, whether women or men, and we should celebrate when we find them and learn from them regardless of their chromosomes.
What do you think?