HP appoints Meg Whitman as chief executive

It is official: Hewlett-Packard is once again the biggest Fortune 500 company led by a woman.

After the close of the stock market on Thursday, HP, the world’s largest computer maker by revenue, announced that Meg Whitman, the former head of Ebay, would replace Léo Apotheker as chief executive.

HP has a history of female leadership. From 1999-2005, Carly Fiorina served as chief executive. Now it is Whitman’s turn at the helm. I spoke to Kathy Kram, a professor who specialises in gender and leadership at Boston University School of Management, to get her take on the news.

“There’s going to be a strong tendency to compare Carly and Meg,” she told me.

There are a lot of parallels between Whitman and Fiorina. They both have excellent pedigrees: Whitman, who has an MBA from Harvard, worked for Bain, Disney, and was a general manager at Hasbro; Fiorina, who has a Master’s from MIT, spent nearly 20 years at AT&T and Lucent Technologies. Both have been dubbed by Fortune magazine as “the most powerful woman in business” at various points in their Silicon Valley careers.

“There have been so few women in these positions – particularly in technology – and we don’t have enough images of what it looks like when a woman is effective in a top job. Whitman is going to be under a lot of pressure,” said Kram.

She also said she thought that that like other highly visible women in corporate America, Whitman will “be the target of excessive scrutiny”.

“She walks [within] a narrow band of acceptable behaviour. If she is too vulnerable, or too compassionate, she will come off as soft. But if she is too aggressive, she will be labelled bitchy. Her celebrity enhances that scrutiny.

“It’ll be interesting to watch how people report on her.”

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