LeadershipExpert Opinion

Changing Of The Guard

Guards standing outside of a stone building

This op-ed first appeared in the Houston Chronicle as "Glass ceiling starts to crack amid the #MeToo movement"

Cynthia Marshall was hired as the new CEO of the Dallas Mavericks last February, with the mission to clean up the toxic culture of the franchise.

Marshall’s appointment at the time was not an anomaly. According to data recently compiled by the New York Times, the #MeToo movement has brought down 201 powerful men (and three powerful women). Among the 98 men whose positions have been filled, half of their replacements were women. However, the percentage of female replacements was lower in Republican states than in Democratic states, and it was lower in government, politics and businesses than in media, entertainment and education.

The uneven distribution of female replacements in our minds calls for actions to not only level the playing field for men and women, but also for women in different fields.

Replacing accused men with women amid the #MeToo movement offers important benefits to the institutions where the scandals were uncovered.

First and foremost, replacing an accused man with a woman immediately sends a signal to external and internal constituents that the institution is going to change its culture. Second, since most victims of the #MeToo movement are women, it is easier for a female replacement than a male to connect with the victims based upon their gender similarity.

In the case of the Mavs, minutes after accepting the job offer, Marshall joined the team’s owner Mark Cuban for a news conference, in which she told the media, “I want to do it for the sisterhood.” Such a commitment to the “sisterhood” is unlikely to be made by a male replacement. The connection between a female replacement and the victims can help the institution repair its stigmatized image and damaged relationships with constituents.

However, the #MeToo-led cracking of the glass ceiling is not happening everywhere. First, the domains of the institutions make a difference. Among the 34 replacements in government and politics, only 13, or 38 percent, were women. Similarly, among the eight replacements in businesses, only two, or 25 percent, were women. In comparison, among the 35 replacements in media and entertainment, 19, or 54 percent, were women. A high ratio of female replacements was also observed in arts three, or 60 percent, and education four, or 100 percent. Second, geography also matters. In the blue states, 58 percent of the replacements were women, whereas the ratio was 36 percent in the red states.

The #MeToo movement created an unprecedented opportunity for women to break the glass ceiling and replace men in powerful positions. Yet, the uneven distribution of female replacements highlights that women face more challenging career barriers in some domains and regions than in others. Relatively speaking, positions are more hierarchically structured in government, politics and business. For every step up the ladder, women face bigger barriers than their male counterparts do and accordingly, female representation decreases as seniority increases. Therefore, when vacancies in senior positions appear due to the #MeToo movement or other reasons, few female candidates are available in the talent pipelines. Moreover, in the red states that tend to be more conservative, gender equality is lower than in the blue states, which reduces both the availability of female candidates and social acceptance of female leadership in the red states.

Our own research finds that a positive organizational attitude toward female leadership plays an important role for individual women to emerge and succeed in leadership roles. We find that a female CEO is more likely to be appointed when a company’s industry has other female CEOs and when it has a higher percentage of women on its board of directors and/or among its senior executive team. Moreover, a female CEO is more likely to survive and deliver good firm performance when the company has at least another woman on its board and/or senior executive team.

Amid the #MeToo movement, many institutions are under social pressure to replace accused men with women. However, as the movement cools down, the pressure will go away. Whether the cracking of the glass ceiling is temporary or has a lasting impact depends upon how well the incumbent female leaders perform and how many female talents will be developed in the pipelines. Both issues require efforts from aspiring women, their allies as well as the society at large.


Yan Anthea Zhang is the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management in Strategic Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Yoon Jung “Jenny” Kwon, a Strategic Management Ph.D. student at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.