The XX Factor

There Are More Men Named John Than Women Running Large Companies  

Female CEOs are outnumbered not just by men, but by men named John.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

More large companies in the United States are run by men named John than by women. Not by women named anything specific. Just, women. That’s what the New York Times’ Upshot discovered after creating a cheeky analytical measure they call the Glass Ceiling Index, meant to figure out just how marginal women really are when it comes to holding leadership positions in major institutions. Justin Wolfers explains:

Among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms, for each woman, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James. We’re calling this ratio the Glass Ceiling Index, and an index value above one means that Jims, Bobs, Jacks and Bills — combined — outnumber the total number of women, including every women’s name, from Abby to Zara. Thus we score chief executive officers of large firms as having an index score of 4.0.

Our Glass Ceiling Index is inspired by a recent Ernst & Young report, which computed analogous numbers for board directors. That report yielded an index score of 1.03 for directors, meaning that for every one woman, there were 1.03 Jameses, Roberts, Johns and Williams — combined — serving on the boards of S.&P. 1500 companies.

The findings are amusing, but there’s a real story here that shouldn’t be overlooked. As Wolfers notes, “[M]ost companies understand that an all-male board looks bad, and so most of them appoint at least one woman, although only a minority bother to appoint more than one.” By sprinkling a few female faces in the mix, major corporations can deflect accusations of sexism. After all, if some women get through, then it can’t be discrimination, right? 

Even Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has a tendency to deny that sexism plays a role in how women are treated in corporate spaces. As Medium reported on Monday

Some observers have posited that the snark about Mayer’s micro-management plays into gender stereotypes; it’s one example of many, they say, of Mayer being called out for aggressive behavior that wins praise when exhibited by male CEOs. Mayer wants nothing to do with that form of support. “I never play the gender card,” she says. “The moment you play into that, it’s an issue.” What’s more, she believes that in Silicon Valley the sex of a CEO doesn’t matter. “In technology we live at a rare, fast-moving pace. There are probably industries where gender is more of an issue, but our industry is not one where I think that’s relevant.”

The implication is that if there isn’t any sexism, then it must be that more men than women are good enough to hack it as corporate leaders. The Glass Ceiling Index throws a wrench in that narrative, however. It’s one thing to argue that the men’s team has more individuals that are good enough to make it into corporate leadership than women. It’s another thing entirely to try to argue, with a straight face, that the category of people named John has more hard-working, talented individuals in its ranks than half the human race.