This article appears in the Oct. 26 issue of the Magazine.
Congratulations to all the high-powered women who have made it to the top. You’ve done it. You’ve shattered the glass ceiling. You have it all. Now don’t fall over the edge.
It’s called the glass cliff, and as more women take up the corner office, it’s a vexing challenge we face.
Companies that are struggling, it turns out, like to bring in female CEOs and board members to engineer a rescue. We’re perceived to possess traits that are critical in crises — the ability to communicate, empathize, and think outside the box. Women gravitate to these hazardous jobs because, frankly, we’re not given that many chances to be in charge. We take what we can get. Just look at the leading ladies of corporate America. They have some of the toughest assignments on Wall Street today.
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty is the headband-wearing CEO who has to make computer giant IBM relevant again. Mary Barra is the insider charged with changing General Motors’ culture, one that covered up a deadly defect in millions of cars. Marissa Mayer, who was seven months pregnant when she got the nod to lead Yahoo, has to find a way for the search engine company to thrive in the age of Google.
There’s nothing wrong with women perched on a glass cliff. In fact, we should own it. Take off the stilettos, strap on the crampons. It’s only a problem when we can’t turn the ship around.
Female CEOs tend to make headlines because they’re such a rarity: They account for only 4.8 percent of the Fortune 500 companies’ leadership. Troubled firms, of course, also attract the spotlight. Combine the two — female CEOs running ailing companies — and one might be tempted to conclude that women don’t know what they’re doing.
Could this possibly be true? A decade ago, psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam decided to find out, research that led them to coin the term “glass cliff.” What they found is what we know now: that women are often brought in to rescue companies in distress for all the reasons I mentioned earlier.
“Women were appointed to companies that were doing badly, rather than causing bad companies,” says Ryan of the University of Exeter in Great Britain, who continues to study the impact of the glass cliff on women’s ability to succeed in the workplace. “That potentially is a new barrier to beware of,” says Ryan — newer, that is, than the decades-old glass ceiling concept. “They should be aware of the risks involved,” Ryan cautions.
The perils of navigating the glass cliff may explain why more female leaders get fired. According to a 2013 study of 2,500 public companies by consulting firm Strategy&, over the previous 10 years, a higher percentage of female CEOs (38 percent) were forced out, compared with men (27 percent). One reason, the report found, is that female chief executives tend to be hired from outside the company, and outsiders are more often forced out than insiders. That’s in part because outsiders lack an internal network, which can make it harder to succeed.
How can women break this cycle? Gary Neilson, one of the study’s authors, thinks the onus is on companies to develop a stronger pipeline. “Are women CEOs treated differently? Women are certainly in the situation that they are more often outsiders,” says Neilson. “That’s a bad sign for companies in general, because that means many companies aren’t developing women from the inside.”
Whether outsiders or insiders, some high-profile women have met their demise by public firing squad. Many men, on the other hand, have been able to leave quietly — to euphemistically “pursue other opportunities.”
The end certainly was ugly for Secret Service director Julia Pierson, who resigned earlier this month, a day after being grilled on Capitol Hill about security lapses at the White House. Our own Stephen Lynch, the South Boston congressman, lambasted her, saying during her hearing: “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.”
Similarly, Jill Abramson — the first female executive editor of The New York Times, who was fired in May after two and a half years in the job — endured a torturous dismissal. In an effort to quell controversy that her ouster was gender-related, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. issued a statement that would have made most HR officers blanch. He talked about her pay (explaining it was more than her predecessor’s) and was rather explicit on why she was let go. “During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication, and the public mistreatment of colleagues,” said Sulzberger.
We tend to remember the women who are pushed out because there are so few of them at the helm. But it may also be because women, not being part of the old boys’ club, aren’t shy about talking out of school — and that always makes for good copy.
Not long after losing her job, Abramson talked about it to Cosmopolitan in a story focusing on advice for working women: “Is it hard to say I was fired? No. I’ve said it about 20 times, and it’s not. I was, in fact, insistent that that be publicly clear, because I was not ashamed of that.”
Then who can forget Yahoo! chief executive Carol Bartz, who got axed in 2011. In her first media interview post-dismissal, she told Fortune magazine: “These people f — ed me over.” The chairman had fired her over the phone, reading from what sounded to her like a script from the lawyers, Fortune reported. “Why don’t you have the balls to tell me yourself?” Bartz said she told her boss. “I thought you were classier.”
Take it all in, and it seems that female CEOs face a double standard in the way they are hired and fired. So is there anything we can do to avoid our glass cliff fate?
Betsy Myers, the founding director of Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, tells me the best way is to go in with your eyes wide open. Don’t just be honored that you got the top job. Ask for more staff, a bigger budget, and anything else the guys don’t think twice about demanding. “Sometimes we take on positions without being strategic and asking for things we need to succeed,” she says.
In other words, bigger, better crampons, please.