It's no secret there's a massive gender disparity in the upper echelons of the American business world. Women account for just 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and that's actually a fact to be celebrated, as it's the highest we've ever seen.
That's bad enough it itself.
There's a real problem here and women in business have had to work hard to break through that glass ceiling, both as individuals and collectively. Considering how underrepresented women are in big business management, there's still a lot of work to do even on that front.
Once they do, though--once a woman beats all the odds and earns the top seat in a major company--the fight begins for her to keep that job. A recent PWC study found that over the ten-year period ending in 2013, female CEOs are forced out of their jobs far more often, with 38% getting the boot, compared to 27% of their male counterparts.
What's going on here? How is it possible that with so fewer female CEOs, they're shown the door that much more often?
One interesting potential explanation is called the Glass Cliff and it's something women in business should be aware of.
First introduced by University of Exeter psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam about a decade ago, the glass cliff refers to the conditions under which women are more likely to be promoted to the top. They found that female CEOs seemed more desirable for companies in crisis or distress.
The thinking is that women are more likely to have traits that lend well to crisis management: the ability to multitask, greater empathy, excellent problem solving skills.
An experiment featured in Harvard Business Review in 2011 seemed to affirm this bias. Researchers created articles on the business health of a fictitious organic food company. In one version, the company was run by men and in the other, by women. They expanded on this by creating two additional articles, one in which the company was growing and succeeding and another in which it was failing and laying people off.
Students who read the article were asked to choose a new CEO for the company in these different scenarios and had no preference when the company was being led by women. When it was led by men and failing, however, 7% more chose the female candidate to take over.
Are we doing women a disservice by positioning them as "fixers" and finding them suitable for positions in which they're more likely to fail?
By "we," I mean the business community as a whole. And by "more likely to fail," I mean any candidate, male or female, is more likely to fail when the job is to turn around an already failing company. If women are being put in that position more often, that's something we need to have an honest talk about.
Just look at the way the business community treated Marissa Mayer when she was brought on to turn Yahoo around. Seven months pregnant, she was the subject of scathing news articles tut-tutting about her perceived inability to lead a revival and raise a baby at the same time. She was chosen for her business acumen and qualities that would lend well to getting the company turned around, yet in addition to that challenge, she was thrust under a microscope, as well.
I believe in the glass cliff as much as the glass ceiling, but I also think it's counterproductive to try to pinpoint any one phenomenon or bias as "The Reason" women struggle much harder and against greater odds to get to the top.
Once a woman breaks the glass ceiling, she's more likely to be put at a disadvantage by having to take a turnaround job. She can't just lead--she needs to save. She's also more apt than her male colleagues to be scrutinized by peers and media for her personal choices. Seriously, we don't care what male CEOs are wearing (unless it's Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodies) and we don't question them for staying single, having families, etc., to near the same degree as women.
We expect almost superhuman results from CEOs; is it possible we expect even more of them when they're women?
It seems that way, though I'd love for someone to prove me wrong. The glass cliff seems like yet another unnecessary and preventable obstacle being thrown in front of female CEOs, albeit probably unintentionally.
If there's a widespread perception that women are more suitable for the riskier CEO positions, we need to talk about why that is. It's clearly not doing women any favors, even if we think it's actually a recognition of strengths. Making assumptions based on sex or preferring candidates of one sex over the other were all other things considered equal is the very definition of gender bias. And it needs to stop.