Leaning In, Tumbling Down

by Dish Staff

Reacting to a story about Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Annie Lowrey reflects on “the ‘glass cliff,’ a relative of the ‘glass ceiling’ that holds back businesswomen, the ‘glass closet’ that stifles the ambitions of gay executives, the brick walls facing many managers of color, and the ‘glass elevator’ that helps so, so many white bros up to the top”:

The term comes courtesy of two psychologists, Michelle K. Ryan of the University of Exeter and S. Alexander Haslam of the University of Queensland. In a pioneering study published a decade ago, they found that women were often promoted to board positions after a company had started faltering. Women weren’t picked to lead companies on an upswing, in other words. They were promoted to help manage turbulence and decline.

To show it, the researchers looked at the performance of firms before and after the appointment of a male or female board member. “During a period of overall stock-market decline those companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men,” they found. …

Why might companies gravitate toward female executives during times of turbulence and distress? The explanations tend to boil down to gender essentialism. Women are perceived to be more nurturing, and thus better at healing a broken business. It also might be easier for a corporate board to scapegoat a female executive than a male one, some researchers have theorized, given that women are expected to be worse managers in the first place. But perhaps that is just correlation and causation, as indicated by the glass-cliff theory itself.

Lowrey then pinpoints why the “glass cliff” matters:

The problem with the glass cliff is that it might cement the stereotype that women are worse managers and executives than men, all because they are asked to manage worse businesses then men. “Women who assume leadership offices may be differentially exposed to criticism and in greater danger of being apportioned blame for negative outcomes that were set in train well before they assumed their new roles,” the original study’s authors conclude. “This is particularly problematic in light of evidence that directors who leave the boards of companies which have performed poorly are likely to suffer from a ‘tarnished reputation.’” That might be why the stock of a company drops after the announcement of a female chief executive, but not a male executive.