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Glass cliffs and gray rhinos: Why a crisis is too late to pick a woman to lead

May Theresa

Amid the chaos following the Brexit vote, Theresa May is Britain's new Prime Minister after her main opponent—also a woman—pulled out of the contest to lead the Conservative Party. In the corporate world, meanwhile, Marissa Mayer, hired in 2012 to turn Yahoo around, announced that the company would be sold to Verizon after her efforts to turn it around failed.

It’s no more a coincidence that a country and company in turmoil both looked to women to lead than it is that a last-ditch “Hail Mary Pass” effort involves a prayer to a woman.

Each of these situations involves the kind of highly probable, oncoming threat that I call a gray rhino: dangerous, large, and obvious—but like its relative, the highly improbable black swan, too often overlooked until it’s too late. When a company or country is facing down a gray rhino, the odds increase that a woman will be chosen to try to fix things. Why? The answer lies in another question entirely: Why are leaders so likely to wait to deal with obvious problems until the situation becomes desperate?

The psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam coined the term “glass cliff” to describe evidence they found that women and minorities are more likely to be put into leadership roles in precarious circumstances than in stable or rosy scenarios.

The number of glass cliff examples in government and business is growing quickly. Ginny Rometty at IBM, Mary Barra at GM, and Carly Fiorina and later Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard were all brought in to manage fraught corporate situations. Women have often been elected to lead countries out of the shadows of authoritarian regimes: Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

Crises have helped many women to shatter the glass ceiling, but at a high cost. Not only are these challenges extremely difficult, but the risk of failure and damage to reputation is high. And women leaders often do not get the credit they deserve for taking on these challenges.

The reasons for this glass cliff phenomenon are hotly debated, as is the question of whether the glass cliff exists at all. Some observers argue that men are only willing to give up the worse opportunities to women because they are looking for scapegoats. Others contend that women’s leadership styles are uniquely suited to navigating the rocky emotional ground that turnarounds require.

But the questions miss the real issue: Why don’t companies and governments bring in women earlier, to both boards and leadership positions? Waiting until it may be too late misses key opportunities to handle gray rhinos before they charge.

You’ve likely seen the numbers: in the United States, women hold only 19.9 percent of U.S. corporate board seats and 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.  Worldwide, only 22 women are prime minister or president of their countries, representing just 11 percent of heads of state.

Therese Huston, author of the new book How Women Decide, has challenged stereotypes about women’s decision-making abilities that have made it harder for them to crack glass ceilings. She cites research showing that women are better at making decisions under stress than are men, who tend to ramp up risks and make a situation more precarious.

Women also are key to better group decision making. Diverse boards are less prone to the confirmation bias that makes organizations more likely to overlook problems that ought to be obvious. Bringing different leadership styles and perceptions of risk, women can be an antidote to dangerous groupthink. That likely is an important reason why organizations with a critical mass of women on boards outperform those that do not; according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that expands opportunities for women in business—as much as a 66 percent difference in return on invested capital between the companies with the highest and lowest board participation of women.

Some of the most famous whistleblowers have been women: Erin Brockovich, Sherron Watkins at Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. But instead of listening to women who sound the alarm early on, many companies penalize them for the very behavior that can help to keep a problem from escalating to a full-fledged crisis. It’s widely believed that Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley and Sallie Krawcheck at Citi were made scapegoats in the 2008 financial crisis because they had sounded needed alarms.

Similarly, if a woman leader fails, she often is penalized more harshly than a man in a similar situation, according to new research from Yale social psychologist Victoria Brescoll. Her study suggests that people are more forgiving of failure by people in positions seen as gender appropriate.

Some of the harshest criticism has been of women CEOs in the heavily male tech industry. Marissa Mayer herself has suggested that gender bias has shaped coverage of her tenure at Yahoo. Many commentators have heaped outsized blame on Mayer for failing to find a way for Yahoo to continue on its own. She’s gotten less credit than she deserves for moving the company into mobile and video advertising markets it should have embraced years earlier.

Only a few reporters have acknowledged the difficulty of solving Yahoo’s problems, which began many years before she arrived. The problem of how to monetize its content in a dramatically changing landscape was not unique to Yahoo but shared by many other media companies. Many observers, including one former employee in a poignant post praising Mayer, believe that saving Yahoo was impossible.

The challenges facing Theresa May are similarly daunting. If she minimizes the trauma while steering Great Britain through an exit from the European Union, she is unlikely to get credit anywhere near in relationship to the effort involved. And if the next few years are rocky—as inevitably they will be—she’ll likely get more than her share of blame.

Still, the more women become CEOs, presidents, and prime ministers, the more likely people are to see their leadership roles as gender appropriate and thus assess their performance more fairly at some point in the future. Indeed, the very existence of the glass cliff concept reinforces the image of women as willing to roll up their sleeves to tackle difficult challenges.

Women are now leading key policy cleanup efforts around the world, from the UK to Germany to the International Monetary Fund. The numbers of women leaders are likely to grow, especially if Hillary Clinton is elected in the United States and Helen Clark chosen to head the United Nations.

But even more valuable than associating women with cleaning up problems would be recognition of the ways they can help to prevent crises from happening in the first place.

Women end up on the glass cliff because businesses and governments don’t do a good enough job of turning to them before things get that bad. Backing away from the glass cliff means bringing women into leadership earlier on, before companies and governments get so close to the edge.




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