When executive editor Jill Abramson was dismissed from the New York Times, numerous sources began leaking information on the reasons for her departure. Some noted that it could have been because she asked for more money, with rumors of a particularly large pay gap between her and her male predecessors causing tension.
Others contested that it was because she was condescending and combative within the newsroom, and some shared feelings of dissatisfaction with her leadership. That said, I can’t imagine a newsroom in which a male editor would be fired for being condescending and combative. Rather, old tropes of the hard-as-nails male editor are often depicted as pillars of strength and integrity in a news room.
However, a report, which focuses on female CEOs in the workplace, points to another trend that might be influencing women in upper management: The Glass Cliff.
This idea was first dubbed in 2004 by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Heslam at the University of Exeter. In their research of this phenomenon, they found that once women broke through the proverbial ‘glass ceiling,’ their fight was still not over.
Women were more likely to be hired to positions that inherently carried a high risk of failure. Furthermore, they were more likely to be dismissed for shortcomings that they were not given adequate resources to handle. This practice, of hiring women to top level positions to make the company appear progressive, while simultaneously setting them up to fail, was surprisingly common. A 2005 study in the British Journal of Management by Ryan and Heslam showed that in managerial positions, women were overwhelmingly represented in the most precarious positions, and selected during crisis.
A 2013 Chief Executive Study by Strategy& also shows similar results. It showed that women are often brought in as outsiders, rather than through internal promotion. This disparity, especially in levels of upper management, means they are often unfamiliar with the culture and existing relationships within firms. Alongside this, they were rarely given the time to make adjustments nor were they supplied with material that would be beneficial during their transition.
There’s also another issue at play here, and that is the lack of internal promotions. Some blame this on a smaller pool of women to choose from for coveted top positions, but that also leads to the question: why are there so few women employees being prepared for management?
Women now out-graduate their male counterparts, and no doubt managerial skills and potential could be cultivated from a number of women in the workplace. Yet studies show this happens at a much lower rate for women. Perhaps it is because internally promoted women often have much higher success rates. And for those wanting to keep the board room primarily one gender, this represents a breach. After all, polls have shown that the majority of men prefer taking orders from a male boss.
Issues such as being ‘bossy’ while being the actual boss are seen as a negative. Some workers seem to expect motherly smiles and encouraging words from women in hard-nosed business environments. They want pats on the back and criticism given with soft blows, while male colleagues are expected to give it to them straight, with authority.
While the Strategy& report author does go on record saying that he believes things will be much better for women in the following years, it is important that we question the environment we’re placing women into now. We also need to question why we view their mistakes as inherent character flaws whereas often men’s mistakes are simply situational.
Certainly more studies are needed on pay equity, in house talent cultivation and gender disparities in termination. However, it is fairly easy to conclude that as women break through the glass ceiling, their fight is never over. If we are setting women up to fail, then we must consider, for a moment, what the world might look like if we gave female leaders the resources to succeed.