Almost everyone’s heard of the glass ceiling, the inability of women and minorities to get promoted to higher levels of the executive ranks due to discrimination. What most probably haven’t heard about is the new “glass cliff”. NPR discussed it this week in reference to Jill Abramson’s firing from the position of editor of the New York Times. The idea behind the glass cliff is that women and minorities are only promoted to the executive ranks of companies that are in trouble or having difficulties. The end result of being the executive of a company that’s in transition is that the executive is more likely to fail and to be seen as a failure, thereby perpetuating the myth that women and minorities can’t be a successful executive. In other words women and minorities are pushed off the glass cliff.
The theory behind the glass cliff was recently tested by Professor Christy Glass and Alison Cook from Utah State University. They looked at two specific market segments, NCAA sports franchises and Fortune 500 companies. In their study they found that minority coaches were much more likely to be promoted to losing teams, and in the Fortune 500 women and minorities more likely to be promoted to CEO of failing firms.
The reason behind the glass cliff though isn’t so obvious. It might be easy to immediately assume the worst, and blame discrimination, but there may be other factors at play here. Struggling firms and sports franchises might be need a radical change to change their fortunes and might view putting a woman or minority in charge as the radical change and a non-traditional direction. There’s also other theories that perhaps white men tend to turn down failing firms, believing they have more options with successful firms, opening up the position to women and minorities. And finally there’s a theory that women are seen as more “soothing” and better able to bring calm to an organization in turmoil.
In any case, the evidence is growing that women and minorities only get a chance at the top seat when there’s a problem with the company or franchise. The good news is that they get a chance. The bad news is that it’s also more likely for them to fail in an organization that’s already failing, adding to the myth that women and minorities aren’t suited for the executive office.