05/20/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Women CEOs: Higher Profile, Higher Risk

GM CEO Mary Barra had a tough time in March and April being grilled by Congress for a botched recall of 2.6 million vehicles with faulty ignition switches. But that's only one of the reasons she's in the hot seat -- and she's got company.

Barra inherited a situation that, unfortunately, is all too common for other female leaders. Having broken through the "glass ceiling" -- the invisible barrier that blocks women from the senior-most positions - women CEOs often find themselves balancing precariously on a "glass cliff," where one misstep can send them sliding into a career crevasse.

A new study from the management consulting company Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company) points out that women CEOs are more likely to be forced out of their jobs than men; over the past ten years, 38 percent of women CEOs left involuntarily, compared with just 27 percent of their male peers.

Does this mean that women aren't qualified for the CEO slot? Nonsense. The Strategy& study points out that women CEOs have roughly identical backgrounds as their male counterparts: they tend to come from the same region as company headquarters, have a sprinkling of international experience, and are of the same age. But there are other factors that make the top job more difficult for women - and may even pre-dispose them to fail.

Women are more likely to be brought in from outside the company: 35 percent of women CEOs were hired externally, versus 22 percent of men. That's significant because outsiders aren't familiar with the company culture and lack the internal relationships that are indispensable to getting things done.

Outsider CEOs tend to be tapped more frequently when a company is in trouble. That puts added pressure on the new hire to make sweeping changes in the company's culture, strategy and operations before she has time to build up a cadre of supportive lieutenants.

Last, the Strategy& report cites two more reasons that make women CEOs' position so perilous: an overwhelmingly male boardroom culture and the "benefit of the doubt factor." The "Old Boys" network is still thriving, turning a blind eye to its members' shortcomings and providing a safety net when there is a crisis and they're forced to take a dive. At the same time, women CEOs are subject to closer scrutiny than their male counterparts and aren't given the benefit of the doubt that Old Boys extend to one of their own.

According to "The Special Vilification of Female Leaders," a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, it was ever thus. Around the globe, the historical record dumped on women who ruled in their own right, whether it was Margaret Thatcher, Queen Hapshepsut of Egypt or China's Empress Wu Zetian. Of course, that's not surprising considering that until very recently, history was penned almost exclusively by men.

In other words, boards are willing to take a risk on a woman at the top when it's obvious that the "same old, same old" way of doing things isn't working, but they're also quicker to shaft her if she doesn't produce results.