The truth about Carly

In defending her stormy reign at Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina talks about stuffing her pants and rediscovering the glass ceiling.

Published October 19, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

When Carleton "Carly" Fiorina busted gender barriers by being appointed president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, she famously, swaggeringly, proclaimed there was no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. Pretty much ever since then, she has been eating karmic crow, culminating with her spectacular firing at the hands of an unruly board in February 2005.

Last week Fiorina published her memoir, "Tough Choices," in which she focuses especially on the opportunities and offenses she experienced as a woman in the corporate world. Apparently, the newly humbled Fiorina now sees the brittle transparencies above her where once she saw none.

Fiorina graduated from Stanford with a degree in medieval history and philosophy and dropped out of law school before taking a job as a secretary at a commercial property brokerage firm. She eventually rose as an executive within AT&T, becoming president of Lucent's Global Service Provider business, and was hired as HP's top dog in 1999 at 44. Her tenure at the Silicon Valley dinosaur was as rocky as they come: She presided during the inflation and explosion of the technology bubble, laying off thousands of employees and engineering a merger with Compaq that provoked a heinous legal battle with a company co-founder's son, Walter Hewlett.

Fiorina was fired by the HP board not long after she missed her estimated earnings for the third quarter of 2004 by a whopping 23 percent. Fiorina says that the "dysfunctional board" never explained to her the reasons for her dismissal, but maintains in "Tough Choices" that it was not about her performance. Instead, she chronicles her tussles with two influential board members, Jay Keyworth and Tom Perkins, whom she believes orchestrated her ouster, in part, she speculates, because she would not implement all their suggestions for running the company, and in part, perhaps, because they did not like her crackdown on leaks from the board to the press. Further investigation into the leaks, conducted by Patricia Dunn, Fiorina's successor as board chair, has led to felony charges against Dunn for unauthorized spying on board members and journalists, a fortuitous bit of publishing kismet that has put Fiorina's memoir on the front page.

Aside from the company turbulence, Fiorina's stay at HP was pocked by attention to her every personal detail: from her dogs to her clothes to the marble in her bathrooms to her marriage to a man who put his career second to hers and with whom she raised children from his first marriage. Named the most powerful woman in business year after year, Fiorina graced magazine covers in expensive clothes, gave good sound-bite, and pushed lumbering old HP to move like a sailfish through the currents of the new economy. But her marketing-heavy, engineering-light pizazz did not go down easy with the boys of Silicon Valley. Whether she was a slick, irresponsible showgirl who didn't understand the business she was shepherding, or was scapegoated for making the wrenching changes necessary for an ancien-regime company to keep up in the nouveau economy is still up for debate.

But much as Fiorina's story is about being a girl in a boy's world, it is also riddled with moments in which she chose to ape the signifiers of masculine power. She once donned cowboy boots, stuffed her pants with her husband's socks, and announced to a testosterone-y sales team from Ascend Communications, "Our balls are as big as anyone's in this room." She attended business meetings at strip clubs, took a female dinner partner for a Korean kisaeng party, and brags about an HP board member who once called her "the son Dave [Packard] never had." If "Tough Choices" is a compelling document of the ways in which the business and tech worlds code femininity as suspect, it's also a useful guide to power cross-dressing.

But when we met for lunch last week, it was immediately obvious that Fiorina could never really have passed. Perfectly ordinary-looking in photographs, in person everything about her seems to reflect light as if it's been buffed: her smile, her blond hair, her eyes and a creamy crocheted bell-sleeved jacket that was so strikingly beautiful that it was easy for a reporter to suddenly understand why others had taken time to describe Fiorina's sartorial choices.

When you took the HP job, you famously said that there was no glass ceiling.

Dumb thing to say.

How soon did you know it was a dumb thing to say?

The next day I realized that I hadn't said what I intended to say. When I became the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, I had only done maybe two television interviews in my life; I didn't get that you don't get to explain. What I meant was that women shouldn't fixate on an invisible barrier that's going to get in their way, they should focus on the possibilities. My gender isn't the thing we should be talking about; we should be talking about what you would talk about if I were a man. But none of that came across. I offended people and that wasn't my intention.

But you've written this book about the way you were treated differently as a woman. So isn't it in fact important to talk about gender differences?

Clearly I think it's important. I explained that [glass ceiling] comment in the book because I knew I had been foolish in my choice of words. When I went into business, my desire was to be able to play by the same rules as everyone else. I thought when I went to HP that we had come further than we had. I hoped I was advancing women in business by putting women in positions of responsibility. But it's clear that we don't yet play by the same rules and it's clear that there aren't enough women in business, and the stereotypes will exist as long as there aren't enough of us.

You write about doing things like stuffing your pants with socks to mimic a penis and taking a female dinner companion to a Korean kisaeng dinner. Do you think that you succeeded in part by adopting the signifiers of male power?

No. I think that part of the reason I succeeded was that I talked to people in language they understood. When I negotiated in Italy, I ate a lot of pasta and drank a lot of wine. In bringing a team together to focus on a common goal, you have to find common language.

And the language of the business world remains male?

Well, yes. And particularly that case you cited of Ascend Communications, it was an incredibly male-dominated, macho culture. They understood balls and boots, they understood what that meant.

Is Silicon Valley a boys club?

It's still very male-dominated. There's been some progress, but certainly not enough. In some places, it's going backwards. There are far fewer women vice presidents at HP today than there were 18 months ago. So we're regressing in some parts of Silicon Valley.


Because there aren't enough women in business, the stylistic differences get magnified. That's one of the reasons women get caricatured. The traditional style of the technologist is to be introverted, not terribly communicative, really in love with the technology, kind of geeky and awkward, that's the archetype. Women tend to be more communicative, collaborative, expressive. The stylistic differences get in the way. That's why diversity in the workplace takes real work.

I'm predisposed to be sympathetic to the notion that you were treated differently because of your gender. But I've also read a lot about actual business mistakes you made.

Not everything is gender-based. Part of what you saw play out was the natural and inevitable resistance to change, which always occurs, but which particularly occurred with an iconic company and mythic founders. How dare this outsider come in and challenge how we do things? Do I believe it was magnified because I was a woman? In some cases, yes, but that resistance and hostility would have existed with any change agent that came in to transform a company.

But having a woman run a company is in itself a change. Isn't tradition itself male dominance?

When I came to HP I knew about the company and the history, but I didn't fully understand the extent to which I was an outsider: non-engineer; East Coast big company, not West Coast small start-up; telecom, not computer; and then a woman on top of that. That person was such a challenge to the established way of doing things. It wasn't just the work I was trying to do; it was who I was.

Did you change HP's fortunes for the better?

They would have been much worse had I not been there. HP was slowly driving off the cliff. In the middle of the technology boom they were atrophying and dying. Everybody in the valley knew it. But people's ability to deny and rationalize is huge. We had to do incredibly tough stuff to transform HP from a lagger to a leader. Now people are celebrating HP's resurgence, but it took years of heavy lifting.

You claim they are resurging...

Because the merger that everybody screamed would kill the company has actually saved the company.

But now the company is in trouble again thanks to the pretexting scandal. It's been speculated that had you stayed, you would have been caught up in it. Could you have prevented it from happening?

I never would have started the investigation.

But you did start an investigation into leaks.

I used the term "investigation," which in retrospect I shouldn't have because what it was, was a series of conversations, end of story. That's a form of investigation, but that's not an investigation in the way this was done. To me, the leak was very important, but it was a symptom of dysfunction. So I wouldn't have been caught up in it. But did I get caught up in board dysfunction? Yes, I got fired.

You got caught up by the same guys as Dunn -- Jay Keyworth and Tom Perkins. Do you think Pattie Dunn has been ganged up on in ways that at all resemble how you were treated?

This was a breakdown in judgment, perspective and ethics on many people's parts: The original set of leaks was done to further a personal agenda, the investigation into the leaks got out of hand because finding the leaker became the most important thing, and the exposure of the investigation into the leak was to advance a personal agenda. So there are lots of things for many people to be less than proud of.

In the book you write that the guys behind so much of that stuff were also urging you to do things like demote women at the company -- Keyworth was "derisive of Pattie Dunn's abilities" and urged you to replace her; he was "dismissive of [board member] Lucy Salhany; he found her emotional and inconsistent;" Perkins "was certain that Ann Livermore was unqualified to run the Technology Solutions Group." And then they took you down and now have taken Pattie Dunn down. Do you think gender played a role in their motivations?

I can't get inside their heads ... probably. What's more clear to me though is that these were not people who appreciated different points of view or differences in style. There are lots of people who feel that way. This is why meritocracy in a truly gender-blind, color-blind workforce is so hard, because people can't get to the substance of the person's contributions because they get enmeshed in language and style.

Do you think that recent diversification of the workplace has led to aggression toward working women? For example, the kind of aggression exhibited in this summer's Michael Noer piece, "Don't Marry Career Women"?

I don't know. Resistance to change is almost instinctive in people, and so it's not implausible to me that people are reacting to change by resisting it. My guess is that there are lots of men who are cheering women's advances.

Early in your marriage, you started earning more than your husband. Did it cause friction?

With Frank? No, never. It did with my first husband. But Frank, on our third date, told me I'd be a CEO. Part of what was appealing to him was what he saw as my capabilities. He didn't find it threatening; he found it thrilling. He's 58 years old and from a Roman Catholic family in Pittsburgh. He's had the most traditional upbringing you could imagine, but he has been surrounded by women all his life, and he understands and appreciates them and revels in what makes them different from him.

Do people have to change their thinking about what constitutes a healthy marriage?

I used to joke sometimes that what I needed was a wife. Everyone should have one. There was a whole series of discussions, and women participated as well, about how Carly got to the top because she was so ambitious she chose not to have children.

Do you consider yourself an ambitious person?

I do. It wasn't my intention to climb the ladder when I started as a secretary. Ambition to me means: Do you bring all of yourself to whatever you choose to do? I hope I'm ambitious in how I build a relationship with my grandchildren, in how I wrote the book, in my goals for my marriage. And I hope I'm ambitious in every job I take on.

It was widely rumored you would run against Barbara Boxer in 2004. Was there truth to that?

Yeah. People have talked to me about getting into politics over the years, in various roles.

Do you have an interest in it?

Maybe. I haven't made a decision yet.

Are you a Republican?

Right now.

What does that mean?

I hesitate because in this country right now, party affiliations have become so polarized. In business you try and focus on what you can agree on and common goals and common objectives. In politics in this country all we ever do is talk about what we disagree about. I'd much rather talk about what we agree the problems are.

Is there any other executive or politician who's had an experience that you feel is comparable to yours?

More CEOs have been fired in 2005 and 2006 than ever before ... But as I say in the book, no firing has been treated with the same out-of-proportion publicity as mine was. It was a very public beheading.

What prompted such pleasure in it?

The media loves to build people up and loves to take them down. Probably particularly it loves to take someone down who created so much resistance in the first place. Set aside gender for a moment. When you have to come into a company and you have to lay off 35,000 people, you're going to get resistance. You're going to have people who don't like you and you're going to have people who cheer when you go. That's just life.

I want to press you on the fact that you missed a quarter's projections big-time...

Wouldn't be the first top company that missed a quarter either. Or the last.

Right. But that miss was huge. And you wrote in the book that "building a culture of accountability and execution of discipline requires real and clear consequences for failure to perform." If you had been told that you were fired because you missed the quarter, would you have understood?

Well, missing the quarter was a failure to perform. But I also took accountability for that failure to perform with the board, with the analysts, and I took accountability for every one of the three quarters we missed in the course of this transformation. But the board went out of its way to say, "We're not concerned about a quarter here or there." Now, had that been a reason, whatever the reason, there should have been a direct conversation. That's how you deal with someone: with respect. You look them in the eye and tell them.

You write about how when you became a celebrity, you got very lonely. Did you also enjoy it?

The hardest part about deciding to write this book was I knew I would have to go back into the limelight, and I didn't miss it. The spotlight was the hardest part of my job.

You didn't enjoy being on magazine covers?

No, no. N-O. I turned down many more requests than we ever fulfilled. If I enjoyed it, I would have done Vogue. They would've at least picked a good picture.

But everyone wrote about you that you loved the spotlight. Why?

I guess the people who were putting me in the spotlight assumed I must love it. I don't know why. But I'll tell you, every public appearance I made, there were other CEOs at the same place, giving the same kind of speeches, every one.

They probably weren't dressed as nicely as you were.

They probably were. Trust me, there are a lot of male CEOs that were wearing very beautiful and expensive suits. But it's kind of like: Well, sure they are. There's a picture in the book of the technology CEOs and -- well, you saw what that picture looked like. I was the only one wearing a jacket like this, I can assure you.

I'm quoting here an earlier Salon article about you: "To those that will inevitably say that Carly has been singled out for harsh treatment because she is a woman, nonsense. Anne Mulcahy of Xerox and Meg Whitman of eBay, Carol Bartz of Autodesk, among others, have all shown that a Y chromosome is no prerequisite to performing the CEO's role with quiet competence. What these leaders share besides their gender is that they don't make promises they can't possibly keep." Do you have a response to that?

The ups and downs of business performance are common to every business and every CEO. If you look back to the performance of those three companies, they've had their misses. All three women are fantastic CEOs. None of them, with all due respect, had to lead the kind of controversial transformation that I did. So it's natural that I would get singled out as the object of great debate, because I was asked to lead a very difficult and controversial transformation of the company.

Would you say your book has a mixed moral? You convey in the book that you see yourself as successful at managing change, but the final chapters detail your firing. So is the moral that you can get 100 percent on the test and still get thrown out of school?

First of all, I didn't fail. I was fired. They're different things. Sometimes human dynamics impact you. That's what happened to me. I have had an extraordinary set of opportunities. Starting out as a secretary to having an opportunity to lead one of the largest companies in the world. I hope that's inspiring to women. I would not trade anything I've done. I don't regret anything.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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