Blogs / 19 Feb 2024 10 min

The ugly truth of the CEO gender tenure gap 

By Priscila Pereira, Director of Research & Innovation, Shape Talent 

Getting a woman on the board is challenging enough, but giving her control of the entire business and keeping it is another battle altogether.  

A recent spate of resignations from women CEOs has cause for concern. Susan Wojcicki from YouTube and Helena Helmersson from H&M both cited personal reasons for their departure. They join a long queue of women leaving top jobs giving reasons varying from health and burnout to corporate scandals. Dame Alison Rose was pushed from her role as CEO at NatWest after 27 years of loyal service due to the pressure from ministers following the Farage scandal.  

The 2023 Global CEO Turnover Index by Russell Reynolds Associates search firm highlights that although women progressively become CEOs, only 12% of new CEOs appointed in 2023 were women. An analysis of companies listed on 12 stock exchanges worldwide shows that since 2018, women have lasted an average of 5.2 years as CEOs compared to 8.1 years for men1. Furthermore, female CEOs are significantly more likely to get fired despite their performance when compared to male CEOs.2 

This is alarming, considering the importance of gender-balanced leadership to save our planet, especially considering that gender equity is an integral part of the remaining 16 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.3 

Several insights highlight potential factors negatively influencing the gender tenure gap for CEOs, and they don’t look promising. Although we should never dismiss individual lived experiences that might not relate to these insights, evidence shows that the corporate world is still very much designed for men to succeed even more than their actual businesses! 

We all know by now that women in leadership are good for business and the planet; however, evidence shows that gender biases still prevail in the corporate world, making it difficult for women to attain and then hold onto the CEO role. This, combined with the constant battle to keep proving their worth is a relentless pressure, and – of course – must be done without complaining. Women leaders are constantly publicly scrutinised as to whether they are cut out for the job, even when their performance indicates otherwise. The ugly truth is that women often work to a higher standard than men, make less money than men, all while being more criticised than men.  

Here are some key insights on women CEOs:  

Insight # 1 Female CEOs are significantly more likely to be dismissed than male CEOs despite their performance.  

Female CEOs are 45% more likely to be dismissed than male CEOs. Furthermore, a study found that male CEOs are less likely to be dismissed when business performance is high (compared to when it is low). In contrast, female CEOs have a similar level of dismissal regardless of business performance.4 

Insight # 2 Female leaders are potentially more likely to be set up to fail than men.  

Although there is still a need for further research to confirm the glass cliff phenomenon, initial evidence argues that women are more likely to be appointed as leaders in crisis Research from Utah State University found that in Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities are much more likely to be promoted to CEO in firms that are struggling in terms of performance. Within their dataset of 52 women, “42% of the women were appointed CEO when the firm was struggling or in crisis as indicated in news articles at the time of appointment compared to 22% of the men5“. There are plenty of examples of this – Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo in 2012, just as the company was falling into rapid decline. Jill Abramson was controversially fired as executive editor of The New York Times in 2014 prompting a heated public discourse on the glass ceiling phenomenon6. Mary Barra was appointed at General Motors after their design flaw scandal in 2014 that put their customers at risk.7  

Insight # 3 The evidence is clear that performance is enhanced when women are in charge, but this isn’t translating into gender-balanced leadership.  

The evidence is clear: representation of women in executive teams positively impacts business performance.8 An interesting 2015 Fortune article highlighted the astonishing results of comparing the Fortune 1000 companies with women CEOs and the S&P 500’s performance. The results showed that the 80 women CEOs for the same period of 12 years produced equity returns 226% better than the S&P 500.9 Another European study suggested the presence of women in double leadership positions (CEO-chair leadership) amplifies benefits and limits costs related to CEO duality.10 Often, we hear (as a backlash of positive action) the merit argument that ‘the best person for the job’ should get/keep the job. Yet, the performance argument is simply not translating into action at organisational level. EDI and HR professionals are still finding themselves trying to explain to stakeholders how gender balanced leadership teams are good for the business.  

Insight # 4 The CEO gender pay gap is substantial in some countries.  

A study has shown that in 1,147 CEO successions across 18 countries between 1992 and 2018, women CEOs received a lower proportion of their total pay in cash. The penalty was about 15% in the United States and 23% in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. This was mainly a problem where compensation was negotiated with the board.11 So, not only are women more likely than men to have their judgement questioned and have others take credit for their ideas12, but when they become CEOs, they are also paid less.   

Insight # 5- Women are not less risk averse at work than men and consequently less suitable for CEO roles. 

Although some past studies found men more likely to be risk-takers than women, more recent evidence challenges this assumption by explaining the difference between risky behaviour and risk-taking in the workplace. For example, the likelihood of riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a risky behaviour. However, no evidence was found for overall gender differences in initial risk-taking at work. And when faced with the same consequences, women and men were equally likely to retake the same risks. The findings suggest that when women avoid risks, is because their risk-taking leads to less rewarding consequences.13 In other words, the risk is simply not worth it!  

Insight # 6 Men do not possess a superior concern for maximising outcomes compared to women.  

Evidence has shown that gender differences were more evident when a decision could cause immediate harm. In this case, women are more averse to causing harm than men; equally, women and men have similar concern for overall outcomes. Therefore, men and women focus on maximising outcomes, but women care more about avoiding causing harm.14 How often do we hear that women find it difficult to make hard decisions, are too focused on the people agenda, and the business needs to earn money, etc? How do these messages get so easily twisted in the corporate culture? Is that such a bad thing that a CEO responsible for thousands of employees, potentially millions of consumers, while minimising the impact on the planet is averse to causing harm? 

As if the hardship of the corporate race is not enough, many women at the peak of their careers (usually between the ages of 45 and 55) are impacted by menopause. The National Association for Female Executives surveyed 961 members aged 35 years and older; 88% had personal experience with menopause, 95% reported physical symptoms, and 79% reported emotional symptoms.15 Recent CIPD research found that over a quarter of women (27%) aged 40-60 in the UK who are currently in employment and have experienced menopause symptoms (average of 1.2 million) said that menopause has negatively impacted their career progression16. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to understand the impact of menopause on the female CEO pipeline. This certainly will bring another complexity to the CEO gender tenure gap, and because of its taboo in the workplace, the discussion has not even started at this level.   

 What can organisations do to support the female CEO pipeline?  

  1. Adopt female executive acceleration programmes and gender-balanced boards to ensure there is support when a woman is appointed as CEO.  
  2. Design executive jobs that are friendly to both genders. Workplaces still reinforce the ideal male worker. Female executives are not heroes; they are human, and they might be carers and mothers and perform their share of chores at home, leading to exhausting workloads in both domains.   
  3. Make the career ladder less exhausting for women by focusing on levelling the playing field so that women don’t spend all their fuel overcoming barriers instead of concentrating their energy on making a difference.  
  4. Hold men accountable for ethical considerations in the same way we hold women and make sure that the message is clear. 
  5. Consider the impact of life stages and how these might impact executive women differently than men, for example, menopause. Create an open culture and encourage conversations about menopause. Develop a supportive framework and be clear on practical help. Create a menopause policy or guidance for everyone, not only those experiencing the symptoms.  


If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey do get in touch.  

Priscila Pereira is the Director of Research and Innovation of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business. 

Click here to learn more about Shape Talent and join our mailing list to be the first to receive our tools, research and updates. 

And be sure to follow us on social media: 




  2. Gupta, V., Mortal, S., Silveri, S., Sun, M. and Turban, D. (2018) You’re Fired! Gender Disparities in CEO Dismissal. Journal of Management 46(2). 
  4. Ibid 
  5. Leading at the top: Understanding women’s challenges above the glass ceiling – ScienceDirect
  6. Opinion | Women falling off the glass cliff: When leaning in is not enough – The Washington Post 
  7. Ryan, M. & Haslam, A.(2005) The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions. British Academy of management. 
  10. La Rocca, M., Fasano, F., La Rocca, T. and Neha, N. (2023) Women in CEO duality and firm performance in Europe. Journal of Management and Governance.
  11. Tani M., Valentine, A. and Sharpe, K. (2022). The Gender Pay Gap in the CEOs’ Labor Market DISCUSSION PAPER SERIES by IZA Institute of labor Economics. December IZA DP No. 15781. 
  13. Morgenroth, T., Ryan, M. and Fine, C. (2022). The Gendered Consequences of Risk-Taking at Work: Are Women Averse to Risk or to Poor Consequences? Psychology of Women Quarterly. Volume 46, Issue 3. 
  14. Armstrong, J., Friesdorf, R. and Conway, P. (2018) Clarifying Gender Differences in Moral Dilemma Judgments: The Complementary Roles of Harm Aversion and Action Aversion. Social Psychology and Personality Science. Volume 10, Issue 3.
  15. Simon J.A. and Reape K.Z. Understanding the menopausal experiences of professional women. (2009). Menopause. Jan-Feb;16(1):73-6. doi:10.1097/gme.0b013e31817b614a. PMID: 18779760.