Falling Off the “Glass Cliff”: Are Female and Minority CEOs Being Set Up to Fail?

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We’ve all heard of the “glass ceiling,” the invisible (but very real) barrier that working women and minorities bump up against as they ascend the corporate ladder. Today just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 3% percent are black or Latino.

But until recently, I had never heard of the “glass cliff.” Now, I don’t know why I hadn’t heard it before. It finally gives a name to a very powerful – and destructive – employment barrier for working women and people of color.

The “glass cliff” is in many ways the flip side of the glass ceiling. In the words of sociologist Christy Glass, who studies the phenomenon: “If the glass ceiling means that there are invisible barriers that limit the mobility of women and minorities, the glass cliff suggests that when women and minorities are promoted they tend to be promoted to struggle at firms or firms in crisis. In other words, they’re pushed off the glass cliff.”

Even when women and minorities are able to break through the glass ceiling to the top spots (like CEO), they are often put into the jobs that no one else wants and no one else has been able to succeed in. It’s not hard to think of recent examples.

There’s Mary Barra, who recently became the first female CEO ever of a major car company, General Motors, only to be hit two weeks into the job with a massive faulty-ignition scandal that the company had known about for years.

There’s Jill Abramson, who became the first female executive editor ever of the New York Times, as the Times was in the midst of a battle for the survival of print media. And of course, Abramson was promoted only to be fired two years later.

And there’s Marissa Mayer, who in 2012 was appointed the CEO of Yahoo!, the company that ruled the web in 2001 but has been struggling to find its identity in recent years. Ms. Mayer ignited even further controversy when she announced soon after her hire that she was pregnant. A similar controversy has arisen here in Maine, where Melissa Smith, the new CEO of South Portland-based WEX, Inc., recently announced her pregnancy at age 45 and has made national headlines (something that would never happen to a male CEO announcing he was starting a family).

The phenomenon is more than just a few high-profile anecdotes – researchers have recently found powerful empirical evidence of the glass cliff. Looking at hundreds of promotions in sports and business, researchers found that minority coaches were much more likely to be promoted to head up losing NCAA teams, and woman and minorities were much more likely to be appointed as CEO of struggling companies.

At this point, there’s little question that the glass cliff exists. But the big question is: why? It could be that companies are intentionally setting women and minorities up to fail, while getting credit all the while for being open-minded and diverse. Or it could be that companies are offering these high-risk jobs to both white men as well, but the male candidates are turning the jobs down because they’re confident they’ll get another (less risky) opportunity later on. Women and minorities are (rightly) not so confident they’ll get another chance, given their incredible low representation at the CEO level. Or it could be that gender stereotypes are subtly shaping these promotion decisions. Companies in crisis look to hire a woman as CEO because they assume that female leaders will be calmer and more emotionally aware.

Whatever the reason (and my guess is that it’s often a combination of all three), the glass cliff threatens to be as pernicious as the glass ceiling. Each time that a woman or person of color is promoted to a risky high-profile leadership job, they become an example. If they fail, their stories become further ammunition for those who would like to keep the status quo. And they become cautionary tales for women and minorities who are considering shooting for those top jobs.