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How female CEOs are finding themselves on the edge of a cliff


Have you heard of the ‘glass cliff?’ Have you ever experienced it?

Have you ever fallen off it?

Yesterday, Freakonomics Radio, the podcast spin-off of the eponymous, best-selling book, continued their series called “The Secret Life of C.E.O.’s” by examining the evidence for the glass cliff phenomenon, the ramifications of it, and some possible solutions.

While the concept of the glass ceiling has been widely recognized for some time, the idea of the glass cliff was introduced in the early 2000s by Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter.

“The Times in London printed an article that was looking at how women were performing in the top companies on the London Stock Exchange,” Ryan explains. “Their conclusion was that women were wreaking havoc on company performance.”

The article reported that companies with more women on their boards tended to have a lower average annual share price than those companies that had fewer or no women at all. To Ryan and her colleague Alex Haslam, this didn’t make sense. So, they dug deeper.

“What we found was when companies had been doing poorly, when their share price had been declining, they then appointed women to their boards of directors.” So it seems a different problem was revealed — rather than women being the cause of poor performance, instead they were being selected because of the company’s poor performance.

Ryan’s analysis suggests that women are being set up to fail. And although the reason women are chosen under these circumstances is disputable — is it because no man will take these jobs? Or is it perhaps due to women being viewed as mothers, the ones we turn to in times of crisis? — the result is almost inevitably damaging to not only those that fall, but also the reputations of all female leaders.

Christy Glass, a professor of sociology at Utah State University, points to another potential explanation.

“We termed this the ‘savior effect,’” says Glass, referring to the fact that white women and people of color are significantly more likely than white men to be promoted C.E.O. to weakly performing firms. “In other words, the firm experimented with this nontraditional leader, perhaps trying to signal it was headed in a bold new direction, that it was aggressively going to address performance declines. And if that doesn’t happen, these leaders tend to be blamed and replaced…bringing in the white male, typical leader to then navigate the firm out of crisis.”


“White women and people of color are significantly more likely than white men to be promoted C.E.O. to weakly performing firms.”


For 14 years, Carol Bartz ran the software firm Autodesk. In 2009, she became C.E.O. of Yahoo!, which at one point was the world’s most popular web destination, with a market cap north of $110 billion. But by 2009, it was in rapid decline, losing search business, display-ad business, and faltering in the wake of a controversially rejected buyout offer from Microsoft. Yet, despite the bleak outlook, Bartz accepted the challenge of turning things around.

“The company was just beaten to the ground,” says Bartz. “And I really felt that I could help with that, and give us some air time to get back together.”

But in the wake of continued revenue plummets and a general lack of morale, after just two years, the Yahoo! board unceremoniously let Carol go — over the phone.

The highly competent and proven successful business leader was pushed off the glass cliff.

And the problem exists outside of the corporate world. In the U.S., women are more likely to have leadership positions in failing school districts, and are more likely to run in unwinnable political elections, as well as become leaders during times of political instability.

The empirical and anecdotal evidence is there. The question is: why is it happening? And what can we do to course-correct?


Hear more on episode 319 of Freakonomics Radio, “After the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff”.