As political and social turmoil rocks the Western world, we’re increasingly looking to women to clean up the mess ― the U.S., the U.K., Germany, the IMF and the United Nations may all be run by women come January.
At least one woman isn’t the least bit surprised, but she is worried: Are the coming leaders facing down impossible situations? Are we setting up women to fail, discouraging a generation of women from vying for leadership roles?
More than a decade ago, Michelle Ryan, an organizational and social psychologist at the University of Exeter, along with a colleague, coined a term ― the Glass Cliff ― to describe the situation when women, and sometimes minority men, ascend to power during times of organizational decline, crisis and turmoil. It’s the natural corollary of the “glass ceiling,” the invisible barrier women face when trying to make it up the top of the ladder. Those who crack the ceiling, the reasoning goes, step out onto a fragile ledge at the top and face down various crises.
Years of further research and analysis ― as well as boatloads of anecdotes ― have reinforced these findings. Though some argue they don’t hold up. And these days, from her perch in a village just outside her university, Ryan is bearing witness to a political situation that seems ripped right out her research.
“There are glass cliffs everywhere right now,” Ryan told The Huffington Post by phone on Friday. “Women are popping out of the woodwork.”
The U.S. looks again likely to walk a president out onto the glass cliff ― as we did in 2008, electing a black man to the White House for the first time during a time of financial crisis ― with Hillary Clinton leading the polls.
In the U.K., as male leaders back away from running the country in the wake of the disastrous Brexit vote to leave the European Union, women are stepping in. Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are the remaining two contenders for prime minister.
Indeed, the British press is looking to these women as saviors.
“At this time when Britain is really precarious, you see these men aspiring to power suddenly stepping away and you don’t see many men stepping up. Women see an opportunity and rise,” Ryan said.
Of course, getting more women into positions of power ― in arenas where they’re still minorities ― is a good thing and the raft of women now vying to lead us through crisis are certainly qualified and capable. The danger is you’re putting these women into extremely difficult jobs, with very little guarantee of success.
Because there are so few female CEOs, prime ministers and presidents, each one who ascends to power serves as a symbol for her entire gender. If they fail, women leaders don’t fail just as people ― they fail as “women.”
Their individual failures can serve to reinforce the notion that men are the only truly capable leaders. That also discourages a younger generation of women from seeking top jobs, Ryan said.
“You don’t want to see women set up for horrible falls,” Ryan said. The alternate metaphor for the glass cliff? “The poisoned chalice,” she said.
A Great Opportunity Or The Edge Of ‘Doom’?
Ever since Ryan and S. Alexander Haslan, now at the University of Queensland, coined the phrase, the glass cliff has been getting crowded: Marissa Mayer took the reins at Yahoo, as the company faced ongoing decline in 2012; Mary Barra came to lead General Motors right before the company was forced to face the music on a massive recall scandal in 2014; Iceland elected female leaders after the country was devastated by the financial crisis; the United States in 2008 turned to a black man to clean up one of the worst financial disasters in the country’s history.
Taking on a leadership role is never simple; taking it on when a company or country is facing a big crisis is really tough.
Over in the U.K. a new prime minister will have to appease a population where essentially neither side is happy, Ryan points out. The people who voted to leave the EU are upset that the leaders of the Brexit movement are backing away from their promises ― more money for health care! No more immigrants! Those who voted to stay in the EU. Well, they lost.
Leading the country is “a great opportunity, but it will be difficult,” Ryan said in a gentle understatement.
In the U.S., some are already saying that even if Clinton wins, she will ultimately fail because of the extreme political climate and the country’s rising suspicions of “elites.”
“Doomed,” is how Felix Salmon described her in a recent piece for Fusion.
Mayer is still hanging on at Yahoo, but no one is sure how much longer she’ll last as her company continues to face challenges. But Barra meanwhile has managed to triumph. And she’s considered an exceptional female leader, Colleen Ammerman, the director of Harvard’s Gender Initiative, told HuffPost.
So Much For Smashing The Glass Ceiling
Ryan and Haslam were inspired to do their research after reading a report in the London Times in 2003, which claimed companies with declining share prices had more women in their boardrooms.
“So much for smashing the glass ceiling and using their unique skills to enhance the performance of Britain’s biggest companies,” the article read. “The triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has instead wreaked havoc on companies’ performance.”
The pair suspected something else might be at play. After analyzing the 19 public companies on the London Stock Exchange that actually had women on their boards, Ryan and Haslam found that after a company’s stock price went down women tended to be appointed to the boardroom.
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve tried to understand why,” Ryan said. She and Haslam, as well as academics in the U.S., have spent years analyzing the phenomenon.
Researchers at Utah State University recently studied CEO changes at Fortune 500 companies over the past 15 years, finding that businesses typically put women and minorities in the CEO job in times of poor performance.
More intriguing, those researchers found that when women and minorities do not succeed in those roles, they are typically replaced by a white male leader who exhibits strong hyper-masculine qualities: something they call the “savior effect.”
It’s possible that we’re seeing that play out right now, after eight years of Obama’s stint on the glass cliff. Voters who view Obama’s presidency poorly might gravitate toward former reality TV star and consummate elite white man Donald Trump as a sort of “savior,” Ammerman said.
But those who view Obama favorably, and want four more years of leadership that falls outside of conventional norms, would gravitate to Clinton.
Women As Caretakers And Scapegoats
So why do we turn to women and minorities in times of crisis? A few things are at play. At these moments, people are more willing to take risks, which opens up the field to candidates that aren’t typically considered for powerful positions.
There’s also a feeling that trying out a woman in a leadership role is “innovative,” Ammerman said.
In lab research where participants were asked to consider whether a woman or man ― with equal qualifications ― should be appointed CEO of a company, women were more likely to be chosen if the company was doing poorly.
“We’ve seen that in lots of studies,” Ryan said. Indeed, others have replicated her findings.
Women, and to some extent minorities, may also be stereotyped to have certain traits ― empathy, caretaking ― that people feel make them suited to sensitively manage people through a crisis.
Other follow-on research has shown that women are sometimes appointed in crisis situations to serve as scapegoats. One thinks of Erin Callan, the first-ever chief financial officer of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. She was appointed just months before that firm went under, during the runup to the financial crisis, serving as its public face. Callan resigned as it became clear the investment bank was in dire straits, essentially taking the hit for decisions made by the men at her firm long before she took the top spot.
Each time someone falls off the glass cliff, that failure has the potential to reinforce stereotypes about all women’s capability as leaders. Ryan thinks that slows down the growth of the number of women leaders at companies.
Instead of focusing on the problem of appointing women only in times of crisis, in a recent paper Ryan and her coauthors ask a different question: Why not consider why we are more likely to appoint white men when things are going along super-well?
“Men are given preferential access to cushy leadership positions,” they write. We may need to “start focusing our attention on men’s privileged access to the glass cushion.”
They also probably need a slightly better term.