Most CEOs try to avoid controversy. Elon Musk revels in it. He does so over and over again. And his latest outburst in an interview on 60 Minutes is another example.

It also offers great insight, by contrast, on how companies, boards, and investors treat CEOs who happen to be women.

When the glass ceiling shatters, it leaves huge shards of glass that can slice careers to ribbons.

Musk has previously shown contempt for the SEC. For the head of a public company, this is beyond self-indulgent. It is reckless and unnecessarily antagonizes a regulatory board with great power to do things like charge a company or chief executive with securities fraud.

Oh, wait, that already happened.

But Musk went even further, combining his dislike with self-pity and anger that anyone might reduce his perceived freedom of speech and seemed to tear up during the interview with Leslie Stahl.

Boo hoo, boo hoo.

Not to make light of someone's emotions, by any means. But let's indulge in two observations. First, public communications that might move a stock price, something Musk has been happy to do in the past, are subject to constitutional restrictions. No one, by Musk's own admission, is unreasonably spoiling his Twitter parade.

Second, if Musk had been a woman, people would have widely excoriated him for being too emotional. Hysterical. Unqualified to run a company. Demanded that he be immediately fired.

My bet is that many of the Musk fanboys who are circling their toy wagons to protect their hero would have been the first to pile on.

There are relatively few women who head big public companies. They face enormous opposition and the ones that have broken through tend to be uncommonly competent in their jobs, as studies have shown. Research also indicates that they tend to get brought in when times are bad because companies figure, "Ah, well, what else do we have to lose?"

It's an enormous corporate self-indulgence. (Maybe the men are afraid of competition based on merit?)

As Fortune reported last month, a new bit of research shows that female CEOs are 45% more likely to get dismissed than male counterparts. Not when companies do poorly. Then the rates are about the same.

The difference appears when companies do well.

So, what's going on? The researchers can't say for certain, but their hypothesis resonates. They suggest that when a company is performing badly, the decision to fire the CEO is often clear cut. But when it's doing well, there is "considerable ambiguity about the CEO's leadership of the firm and no clear script for the board to follow." In that situation, board members are more likely to fall back on the gender stereotypes and decide that the female CEO doesn't have the "leadership qualities" needed to continue the company's winning run.

Leadership qualities like self-control, sensible decision-making, or good results.

Or breaking down a bit on television, or in a previous interview with the New York Times, and antagonizing the single largest regulator of public companies.

Oh, wait, that's the opposite.

The good news is that if you own a company and need a great CEO, there are plenty of women who have been unreasonably dismissed after succeeding--maybe in your own industry--and who would probably love a chance to run past those who had stuck it to them. A little research should turn up candidates.

Hey, if you want to succeed, work a little smarter than your competitors. Apparently it's not that tough a bar to clear.

Published on: Dec 10, 2018
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