Flip through a Stanford yearbook from 1976, and one image leaps off the page. It is Carly Fiorina, the woman chosen three years ago to be CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Yes, she had a lot of successful classmates back then. But in the inevitable race for glory, she dazzled spectators by reaching the pinnacle of a company powerful enough to rank among the 30 Dow Jones Industrials.
Fiorina's rise is an exciting story in its own right, but it briefly became a symbol of something even bigger: the notion that even the very top spots in business were becoming freely open to women. After more than a decade of anguished discussion about glass ceilings, her ascendancy to the top of one of the country's most prestigious, storied technology companies seemed to send the signal that gender finally didn't matter anymore.
Or does it?
Talk to people in Silicon Valley today about Fiorina's destiny, and get ready for a 190-proof mixture of anger, pride, denial, and cynicism. The past 12 months have been brutal for just about anyone running a high-tech company. But it's also hard to think of anyone who has come under more fire than Fiorina. While she has been stoic through it all, just about everyone else has an opinion on what her travails mean. Among the bluntest are accomplished women in high tech and finance, high achievers themselves who know all of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which gender issues can ever so quietly slip into the picture — even as men insist that it's all about business.
"Being a CEO is the worst job that you can imagine," says Christine Comaford Lynch, a venture capitalist at Artemis Ventures, in Sausalito, California. "I've done it several times, and as a woman, you just aren't listened to — or trusted — as much as a man would be. Carly Fiorina just happens to be the current dartboard target."
Of course, the ultimate test is whether things would be any different if a male CEO were pursuing Fiorina's current strategic course. Plenty of Valley veterans will argue that gender really doesn't change things. The turmoil at Hewlett-Packard is just another story of a CEO trying to manage successfully in a downturn. It's just another story of a CEO recruited from the outside facing rebellion from the old guard. Even her controversial decision last summer to pursue the acquisition of Compaq is just another story of an ambitious merger plan that may or may not work.
That's what the old-timers will tell you. The problem is, they're wrong. Yes, there are plenty of classic business issues in play at Hewlett-Packard and Compaq. In a perfect world, those substantive issues are the only things that people would focus on. But the HP-Compaq story hasn't ended up on the front page of the New York Times day after day because people are fascinated by ongoing consolidation in the server market. There's a bigger drama in the background: Can Carly make it? And that story is really about how the business world views ambitious women.
Like it or not, Fiorina didn't just become Hewlett-Packard's CEO in 1999. She also became a social icon to millions of people who had never met her. Because Fiorina was breaking stereotypes, even the most routine aspects of her life were put on display. Her travel schedule, her husband's decision to slow down his career, even impudent questions like, "Who cooks?" seemed to be fair game and kept attracting attention.
Let's just talk about work, Fiorina replied. It was the right response — but it was an almost impossible battle to win.
Says one of Silicon Valley's most successful female executives: "Carly has the spit and polish of the female leader from central casting. But then people end up focusing on superficial issues like the quality of her speeches or her appearance instead of her performance."
In a newspaper interview last year, Fiorina briefly acknowledged this predicament. In a high-profile job like hers, she said, "scrutiny is to be expected. But I would say some of the scrutiny is certainly more personal than those directed at my peers. And a lot of it has nothing to do with the business — like what I'm wearing or my personal habits."
Lately, she has endured epithets that go way beyond mere scrutiny. On an Internet chat board that is regularly frequented by HP employees, one especially shrill post was headlined, "Back to the kitchen, Carly." And even before the battle for Compaq began, a New York Observer columnist declared, "Pack it in, babe. You stink."
How will all of this affect the aspirations of the next generation of potential female CEOs? One place to start getting answers is the Stanford campus itself. There, nearly 40% of the business-school classes of 2002 and 2003 are made up of women. Those female students say that they aren't intimidated by the tough reception that Fiorina is facing — but they aren't exactly happy about it either.
"There will come a time when I won't be able to list on my fingers all of the CEOs of large companies who are women," says Cheryl Frank, a Stanford MBA student. "And there won't be much media attention each time a new one is appointed."
But the toll that the Fiorina story is taking makes Frank ambivalent about whether she wants to chase one of those jobs herself. Asked if she would be interested in living a year in the life of Carly Fiorina, she replies, "If only one could spend just a single year as CEO! They have the ability to create change, build great things, and enrich people's lives. But the bigger issue is, Do I want to spend 30 years before that, in the way that is required, to get to that point? There are certainly other ways to make money. There are jobs where the rewards come faster or where there are fewer obstacles on the way up."
In fact, anyone who focuses on big-company CEO jobs as the acme of success may be stuck in yesterday's game. Fields such as law, medicine, and national politics are becoming gender integrated as never before. Female investors are becoming the number-one growth market on Wall Street, as firms such as Goldman Sachs realize that career advancement has created a lot of wealthy women who don't want — or need — old-style, male-centric investment firms.
In recent years, women have been forming businesses at twice the rate of men. Many of those are small ventures, but entrepreneurial women such as Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart have succeeded on a much larger scale, one that has brought extraordinary fame and wealth. What's more, people like Winfrey and Stewart have largely been able to write the rules as they go along. It's their company, and they need not struggle to win over the board, the institutional investors, or the Wall Street analysts anytime they want to do something.
Whatever happens to Fiorina, there will be other women who will make it all the way to CEO at very large companies. Strikingly, right in the midst of Fiorina's agonizing battle to line up shareholder support for the Compaq deal, her previous employer, Lucent Technologies, hired Patricia Russo, a top female executive from Kodak, to be its next CEO.
Yet during the past 12 months, we have also seen once-renowned female CEOs such as Jill Barad of Mattel and Ellen Hancock of Exodus Communications lose their jobs as their businesses headed south. And the circle of high-profile female CEOs is still small enough that it's hard to shrug off those setbacks as mere random noise that needn't distract anyone.
So what if Fiorina fails at HP? As Stanford MBA student Jamie Earle puts it, "If you can survive and grow from a failure like this, you'll be all the stronger for the next battle. Men get into situations like this all the time. Either they say, 'I messed up,' or they just move on. They're masters at moving on! I've seen men rise like the phoenix from utter disaster — business blunders, financial ruin, personal scandal — and they move on like it was nothing. 'Next!' they say, and they don't look back.
"I hope Fiorina will do the same," Earle continues. "The more we see our female role models learning to move on and not agonizing over failures or public humiliation, the better."
George Anders (email@example.com) runs Fast Company's West Coast bureau from San Francisco. Find a catalog of his columns here.