A recent Time magazine article made a bold declaration: “There Are Now More Female Fortune 500 CEOs Than Ever.” The celebration was short lived—the first sentence informs readers that women now make up a whopping 4.8% of the list. This term is well known and widely understood as the “glass ceiling.” It refers to the unseen yet unbreachable barrier that keeps women and other minorities from achieving the highest levels of success and responsibility, regardless of qualifications or achievements. In a world where women earning 78 percent of what men are paid is considered progress, and the appointment of a female CEO is newsworthy, the continued existence of the glass ceiling is irrefutable. However, there are a few noteworthy women who have transcended this barrier and taken the helm of their organizations. This does not mean that the ceiling is shattered—or even cracked. Before “solve gender inequality” can be checked off the corporate world’s bucket list, it is necessary to analyze the treatment of women with powerful job titles. What actually happens when women are put in charge? Enter a new phenomenon: the glass cliff.
The glass cliff describes the phenomenon of female executives in the corporate world being more likely than men to be put into leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn—when the chance of failure is highest. In the words of writer and economic policy expert Bryce Covert, “Time and time again, women are put in charge only when there’s a mess, and if they can’t engineer a quick cleanup, they’re shoved out the door.” Multiple studies focused on the corporate world support of the existence of the glass cliff. One study found that before a woman took over as CEO of a Fortune 500 company between 1996 and 2010, its previous performance was significantly negative. Another found that FTSE 100 companies who appointed women to their board were more likely to have had at least five months of consistently bad performance compared to those who picked men. Yet another found that companies were most likely to choose women for their boards after a loss that signaled the company was underperforming. Even in a lab study, students and business leaders were more likely to pick a woman to lead a hypothetical organization when performance was on the decline.
Research indicates a number of possible explanations for the studies’ findings. There is a suggestion that the glass cliff is a response to the feminine association with cleaning up messes. Additionally, putting a woman in charge is seen as a way to “shake things up” when the status quo is not producing the desired outcomes. The problem with this, as explained by Kira Makagon of Forbes Magazine, is that it perpetuates the false notion that female leaders are less capable than male leaders. “A struggling organization hires a female leader, and she inherits a company in crisis. She can’t quickly generate the momentum needed to fix the problems. The Board of Directors replaces her with a seasoned, white male…Women are more frequently hired into precarious roles, not positioned to succeed and eventually replaced with men.” A survey of female CEOs supports her statement: female CEOs are more likely to be forced out of their job than men, and are more than likely replaced by a man.
A casualty of the glass cliff is recently-ousted Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. Having served as director for a year and a half, she was the first woman to lead the Secret Service in its 150 year history. Ms. Pierson inherited a severely understaffed organization with a limited budget, high turnover rates, and long hours. As a result of the numerous budget cuts, and Pierson herself told Congress the organization was 550 employees short of performing at an “optimal” level. She resigned amid intense criticism over a knife-wielding intruder who was able to get as far as the East Room of the White House. There is no denying that this incident is highly problematic and deserving of negative attention; this intruder was an example of an egregious breach of White House security, and, as Director, Ms. Pierson was at fault. What is problematic, however, is the way that similar incidents have been treated under the leadership of male directors.
True to form, Pierson was nominated as Director on the heels of a scandal: Secret Service employees were caught allegedly hiring prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia prior to President Obama’s arrival. Her predecessor, Mark Sullivan, was Director when both the infamous Salahi couple and Carlos Allen eluded multiple layers of security and crashed a State dinner in 2009, posing for pictures with Obama. There was also an incident under his reign in 2011 when an assault rifle-wielding assailant was able to get close enough to the White House residence to fire at least seven bullets into the windows and exterior.
This incident occurred while Malia Obama was inside the residence with her grandmother. Officers on duty were told that the noise (note: gunfire) was a construction vehicle backfiring. The bullets were not discovered until a housekeeper was cleaning the broken glass four days later. Yet Mr. Sullivan kept his job until his retirement in 2013. In fact, his name was not even mentioned in recent reports of the incident. Then there is Joseph Clancy, Pierson’s temporary replacement, who was in charge of presidential detail during the Salahi incident. Still, this security breach was not detected until Mrs. Salahi posted photographs from the dinner on Facebook.
Julia Pierson is not alone at the bottom of the cliff. Other examples include Mary Barra, the first woman to run a car company when she was appointed CEO of General Motors in January 2014. Two weeks into her tenure, the company issued a massive recall on faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths. The company knew about the issue as early as 2001; Ms. Barra did not find out until she had already begun acting as CEO. Carly Fiorina took over Hewlett-Packard immediately before the tech bubble burst. When Anne Mulcahy became the first female CEO of Xerox, the company was $17 billion in debt and under investigation by the SEC. Lynn Laverty Elsenhans became the first female CEO of Sunoco after its shares took a 52 percent dive. Erin Callan was appointed as the first female CEO of Lehman brothers in December 2007—a few months before the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. She resigned before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The list goes on.
Gender inequality does not end when women attain powerful positions. While there are certainly women who have served brilliantly as CEOs and other top positions, they are the exception, not the rule. By using women as scapegoats, the corporate world is perpetuating the concept that women are not “made” to lead. We can’t all have Olivia Pope on speed dial; some problems will end careers. That being said, female leaders are not given the benefit of the doubt the way male leaders have been since, well, forever. Sexism is embedded in the structure of our culture; it’s going to take more than a few token Boss Ladies to truly shatter the glass ceiling, close the wage gap, and eradicate the glass cliff.