Falling Off The Glass Cliff


Women, at some point in their careers, butt their heads against an invisible glass ceiling. This is what modern feminism tells us. The glass ceiling has become a euphemism for women’s career stagnation or for why they leave the workforce. But a more provocative theory by British researchers at Exeter may be more accurate; women don’t hit a glass ceiling as much as fall off a cliff.

The two researchers, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, looked at companies in the FTSE 100 and found that women were more likely to be appointed to the board of these companies during times of crisis, when share prices were on the decline. The same held true in their analysis of Fortune 500 companies. What this confirmed was their suspicion that women are appointed to positions of power when companies are doing poorly and that women’s bad performance is really not a matter of them being poor leaders as much as being in positions that reinforce stereotypes around how women can’t lead.

This was the story of Erin Callan, Lehman Brothers’ ill-fated CFO in 2008. By her own account, “she was plucked from obscurity by Lehman’s top management for the CFO job,” only to have the whole company come crashing down three months later. The lesson to women from Callan’s experience; “If it seems too good to be true, it is.”

Many political observers see Callan’s experience playing out now in the U.K. where Theresa May, Britian’s newly elected Prime Minister, must deal with one of the most challenging situations in that country’s history, Brexit. “Brexit is really a lose-lose situation for the Prime Minister,” Michelle Ryan notes. “Whatever she negotiates, no one will be happy.”

The same has been said about a possible Hilary Clinton presidency. Politico has observed that Mrs. Clinton would be a status quo president when everybody on both the left and the right has expressed a desire for change. “She may win the election, but lose the country,” Todd Purdum writes. He went on to describe her four or eight years in office as potentially “hellish.”

With so much stacked against these women, it is amazing they take high-profile executive positions or seek political office. CUNY ISLG’s Equality Indicators documents the many obstacles impeding women from seeking office in their new report, “Who Runs Our Cities?”  The Equality Indicators found gendered social roles, negative self-perceptions, limited exposure to politics, and lack of support are all reasons why women don’t seek local office.

Taking a job is kind of like buying a used car, you never know what you are going to get. Applying the “Caveat Emptor” principle to employment might be the most prudent course for women, but then society will lose out on everything women have to offer. So maybe we should try being extra supportive of the women who do step up to lead. Their footing might be more perilous than we think.