Ouster of Indian-American Gap CEO Syngal follows trend of women being fired faster

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Sonia Syngal, then president and chief executive officer of Old Navy., smiles during the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Sarah Silbiger.

Sonia Syngal’s ouster as chief executive officer at Gap Inc. after just 2 ½ years on the job follows a familiar pattern – female CEOs typically have shorter tenures and are more likely to be forced out than men in Corporate America.

Women in the role step down after an average tenure of 6.6 years, compared with 9.9 years for men, according to data compiled by exechange.com. The figures, which track CEO departures among companies in the Russell 3000 Index, are for the period from the start of 2017 through Syngal’s firing on Monday. The data, which cover 95 women and almost 1,500 men, also indicated that female CEOs were slightly more likely to have been forced out than their male counterparts, according to Daniel Schauber, founder of exechange.com.

Women still only make up less than 7% of CEOs for large companies. They are also under-represented both among higher executives in general, and specifically among those positions most likely lead to the top job – such as president or chief operating officer – underscoring the “glass ceiling” that keeps them out of power. Because they are in the lower-power jobs, women also tend to trail men in both total compensation and company stock ownership.

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For the few women who reach the highest ranks, the data consistently shows there is a “glass rug” of sorts that will be pulled out more quickly than if a man is in charge. Syngal departed as rising costs and discounts thwarted her plans to reignite growth at the clothing retailer. Her predecessor, Art Peck, attempted a similar turnaround for five years before he was fired.

Schauber measures the departure of a CEO on a 10-point-scale “push-out score:” Zero represents leaving the role in a total voluntary fashion, and 10 is for someone who was clearly fired. Anything higher than a score of 5 suggests a CEO was pushed out. Female CEOs averaged a score of 5.9 versus 5.3 for men, the data showed. In the first half of this year, the gap has widened, with women averaging 6.8, compared with 5.1 for men. The 2022 score for female CEOs is higher than in the previous five years. Syngal’s departure was scored a 10.

The company said in a regulatory filing that Syngal was “terminated without cause,” which triggers favorable severance benefits. In the release, the company said she was “stepping down.”

“Women have significantly shorter tenures, and slightly higher push-out scores,” Schauber said. “Basically, that’s true every single year.”

Although Syngal was promoted to the Gap CEO role after Peck failed to fix the struggling retailer – his exit also scored a 10 – the data doesn’t show that companies only turn to women when they’re in trouble, Schauber said. When women have been appointed CEOs, the average push-out score of the departing head was 4.7. For men coming into the CEO role, the push-out score for the departing executive was a 5.3.

Still, recent struggles for retailers may buck that overall trend. In the past few years, more women were promoted to C-suite roles after turmoil in the industry sparked a brutal turnover rate for executives. That opened the door for an unusually strong pipeline of female candidates. But when companies do turn to female executives, they can be held to stricter standards.

“Men are perceived as being more confident, therefore given more time to execute on a strategy,” said Cathy Logue, an executive recruiter at Stanton Chase. “Board composition is still a majority men, and women are at a disadvantage. Their performance will be judged differently than a man.”

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