Cliffs made of Glass – the new battlefield in the fight for gender equality

Meg Whitman was appointed  as Hewlett-Packard’s  CEO in September, 2011 – during one of the most critical moments the company faced. Virginia Rometty took the reins of traditionally male-dominated, century-old IBM in January, 2012. 37-year-old Marissa Mayer became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Yahoo, in the summer of 2012. They were all poised on glaff cliffs and the latter was one of the steepest ever seen.

Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer
The once infamous glass ceiling, the invisible barrier to women advancing beyond middle management, has been substituted by a Glass cliff, a situation in which women, after being able to crack the glass ceiling, are put into precarious, risky positions where the chances of them failing are much bigger. Ryan and Alex Haslam, psychologists at the University of Exeter, UK, introduced the term in 2004 after examining a 2003 paper published in The Times, which revealed that the stock performance of corporations led by women was worse than that of organizations led by men.  It stated:

Corporate Britain may well be better off without women on the board’

After examining the facts Ryan and Haslam unfolded a slightly different story.

Their archival study of FTSE 100 companies indicated reversed causality – women were put in high-profile positions in companies that had worse performance before their appointment, whereas men were appointed in senior positions in companies with relatively stable performance. What’s more, when women took charge in times of general financial crisis the companies experienced share price increases.

Women were seen as crisis managers for a reason.

Women are given risky senior positions much more often than men. Hence the probability that they will fail substantially increases. The stereotypical view of females as crisis managers creates two problems. In terms of the fight for equality the battle is now not only restricted to securing the same number of leadership positions but also to pursuing equivalence in the nature of the role.  The other pitfall is the higher visibility, closer scrutiny and high expectations women face once appointed to C-suites. What are the implications?

Shorter tenures of female CEOs, differences in the workplace experience of men and women and reinforcement of the stereotype of women as ineffective leaders due to the negative company outcomes which are rarely connected to their leadership style. How can a woman at the top escape the prejudices?

Gender discrimination is likely to persist; status quos and deeply embedded societal and cultural perception will not be as easily uprooted. Yet, the companies that seek effective and sustainable development promote board room gender diversity not only when times are tough. BRIC and Asian countries are catching up – 26% of women occupy senior corporate positions as opposed to the 21% in Europe (the figures for Japan and Germany are as low as 5 and 13 % respectively).

The conclusion? Do not quit the rat race even if faced with a glass cliff – your perseverance will serve as a role model for generations to  come and eventually women will be seen not only as crisis managers. This is a reward worth fighting for. And, as Margaret Thatcher has put it:

“I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near”.


The article has been published in Capital, the student business magazine in the Faculty of Business and Law in London Metropolitan University.


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