Theresa May, the UK’s new prime minister, is the second woman in history to hold that title, yet her position is hardly enviable. Tasked with managing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU after her colleague Boris Johnson, who had aggressively supported it, bowed out of the running for the premiership, May could easily be seen as having to clean up someone else’s mess (she had not favored Brexit herself but has committed to implementing it). At the Conversation, Psychology professor Julia Yates holds her up as an example of a woman on the “glass cliff”—in a leadership position nobody wants, because circumstances point to a high likelihood of failure:
In 2003 The Times published the results of a survey which appeared to show that having women on executive boards was detrimental to the success of the companies they served. It seemed that following the appointment of a women CEO, the share price and performance of the company declined. Research published two years later told a different story. Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam decided to probe the data and looked at the direction of travel of share prices before the appointment of new CEOs. They found that female CEOs were more likely to be appointed to organisations whose share prices were already falling.
So failing companies were not the result of female CEOs; female CEOs were the result of failing companies. And this of course meant that the female leaders had an uphill struggle in trying to make their organisations successful, and ultimately were more likely to fail. The called the phenomenon the “glass cliff”. …
This glass cliff effect has been seen in a range of other arenas in the private and public sectors, including politics. Examining data from the 2005 UK election, one study of Conservative MPs showed that, while female MPs tended to have won fewer votes than male MPs, this was entirely explained by the fact that they were standing in seats which were less safe.
Jena McGregor at the Washington Post recalls some other recent examples of women put in similar positions:
The “glass cliff” phenomenon has often been shown in a business context, and is often raised when a woman is placed into a particularly thorny CEO job, such as after Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors or Marissa Mayer took over at Yahoo. Ryan and Haslam first revealed that companies that put women on their boards were more likely to be coming off of consistently poor performance in the five months prior than those that appointed men. A 2013 study found that among Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities were more likely to be promoted to CEO at companies with weak performance.
And in an experimental study, researchers found a “status quo bias,” where people saw little need for a company to change its pattern of male leadership if the company was performing well; only if the firm was in trouble did more people prefer a female leader.
The phenomenon has also been shown in a political context. One study examined the link between female leaders and higher GDP growth in countries with high levels of ethnic strife. Ryan’s research has also shown that black and ethnic minorities were more likely to run for parliamentary seats that are “essentially un-winnable or held by the opposition party by a much higher margin,” she said.
Speaking of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo missed its quarterly earnings projections on Monday, reigniting talk of an impending sale and shortening the odds on Mayer losing her job before too long. Inspired by that news, McGregor takes a closer look at how the “glass cliff” phenomenon plays out in the tech world:
When Meg Whitman was named CEO of HP in 2011, the Silicon Valley giant was dealing with a string of recent scandals, instability at the top, strategic questions about a spinoff of its PC business and a massive acquisition that would turn out to be ill-fated. When interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned amid a petition for her ouster and uproar over anti-harassment changes she made, the online community’s chief engineer said she’d been placed on the “glass cliff.” Back in 2001 when Anne Mulcahy was named CEO of Xerox, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and facing an SEC investigation.
But experts on leadership and gender say it’s not clear whether the dynamic really does play out more often in tech than in other fields. “We don’t know if women face the glass cliff in tech more than other industries,” says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. “If we had 500 women [in tech CEO jobs] it would be a different story. But when so few women get to the top, it’s important to look at the individual circumstances in which they’re taking the reins.”
In fact, it may be that women actually get fewer crisis opportunities, rather than more, among Internet companies. That’s because with these firms, the founder is often brought back to lead when the going gets tough.