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Carly and the gender agenda

CNET's Charles Cooper asks whether HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina is being held to a different standard because she is a woman. What do you think?

What with everything else she's dealing with these days, Carly Fiorina has enough to keep her preoccupied any 24-hour cycle. But just to start a little extra trouble, let me suggest that the good chief executive of Hewlett-Packard is being judged by a different standard simply because she wears a skirt.

Reading the Carly coverage closely over the last couple of years, I've seen subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--references to the style and manner in which she goes about her job that always struck me as suggestive to readers that they were now entering the estrogen zone.

In a recent report, for instance, a gentleman from The New York Times described Fiorina's manner as "direct, often combative," and how her handshake was "firm." So let's start deconstructing.

I suppose Fiorina's not any different from the rest of the tech world's corporate chieftains. The head of a multibillion-dollar concern can't have visitors thinking she's a wuss, can they? Thus, the big squeeze.

I've always believed the hard handshake is overrated anyway, probably something to do with an ancient ritual from the days before Beowulf. Still, lots of suits try to impress by making like Arnold Schwarzenegger when they shake hands with reporters. Maybe they're taking their cue from their handlers: A take-charge CEO has to come across as, well, a take-charger.

But in this case, there's also the unspoken assumption that she went out of her way to try to be as tough as, or tougher than, some guy in the same situation.

That gender distinction comes across loud and clear in the subtle (or sometimes blatant) way the press has profiled Fiorina. In fact, the same Times piece in question went on to describe her as being possessed of "stylishly cut blond hair." I'll have more to say about that in a moment, but the "glam Carly" report sent me scurrying to check my reporter's notepad.

Along with several CNET colleagues, I sat down with Fiorina last month--as it happens, on the same day Walter Hewlett chose to make his dissatisfaction with the Compaq deal public--and found her serious and straightforward, as you might expect from someone staking her professional future on the success of a $25 billion acquisition.

But that was the extent of it.

Fiorina wasn't some sultry femme fatale. She was all business.

As for the coif, no disrespect to Fiorina or her hairstylist, but the results are fairly pedestrian. If Fiorina really wants Hollywood hair, I'm sure she can afford to upgrade and find a specialist along Rodeo Drive.

But all this is so beside the point. HP insiders are understandably frustrated with the mandatory girly stuff that populates executive profiles of the boss. The cliche references to Fiorina's hair, attire and directness have turned up with annoying constancy.

I'm willing to cut my brother- and sister-scribes a break, knowing how tough it is to resist a catchy cliche on deadline. Still, I can't recall any big spreads regaling readers about the sartorial splendor of Compaq CEO Michael Capellas. Not that there'd be much to write home about anyway. Capellas seems a nice enough fellow, but when it comes to shlumpfy dressers, he takes the cake. And that haircut? Think of a cross between Rudy Giuliani and Frankenstein.

The same holds true in the treatment accorded other tech big shots. Last time I read a major feature on Lou Gerstner, the author didn't see fit to mention that IBM's chief executive is a rotund kind of guy who keeps his corporate chefs busy. And since Gerstner's eating habits--and his otherwise undistinguished physical appearance--have absolutely zilch to do with his performance as chief executive, that's certainly a proper omission.

Is this an instance of the chickens coming home to roost? HP is partly responsible for fostering the cult of Carlymania. When she was hired away from Lucent in July 1999, corporate spinmeisters were eager to make her face as well known as that of any CEO in the computer industry. In this, they succeeded, perhaps beyond their original ambitions.

But they weren't responsible for the repeated stereotypes and easy generalizations that quickly became part of the packages put together on the nation's "most prominent woman executive."

The Fourth Estate came up with that one on its own--and they've been milking it dry ever since--and maybe it's time they gave it a rest.