First, it was the glass slipper. Then we had the glass ceiling. And now? The glass cliff.
Cinderella's glass slipper has come to represent the concept of waiting around helplessly for a Prince Charming to come to your rescue, while the glass ceiling embodies the notion that women can advance their careers... but only so far. This latest extension of the fragile metaphor suggests that further advancement is now possible, but that it may come with a catch. A big one.
Psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam coined the term "glass cliff" when they took a closer look at a 2003 Times of London piece that had claimed that the stock performance of women-led corporations was poorer than that of male-led corporations. As ever, the devil was in the data: it turned out that these same women-led corporations had poorer performance in the months before the appointment of a new leader. In other words, a woman had been appointed just as things got messy.
Ryan and Haslam noted a similar correlation in British politics: the less winnable the riding, the more likely the Conservative candidate nominated would be female. Here at home, pundits have called it the "Kim Campbell phenomenon," and pointed to Alexa McDonough, Christy Clark, and Alison Redford as examples of women who attained the leadership of their party only after their predecessor had run it aground.
Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe, writing in the Harvard Business Review discuss a study where they asked 122 college students to read an article about a supermarket chain. Some were told that it was successful, while some were told that it was struggling. In both versions of the article, the CEO was about to be replaced. The students were then asked to read and rate the profiles of the job candidates. Sixty-seven percent chose the man to head the successful company, while the majority (63%) reading the crisis company story thought the woman should take over the company.
Bruckmüller and Branscombe have interpreted their results to mean that people believe the stereotype about women being good people managers and better suited to dealing with crises. My own experiences suggest that this might be a charitable view of the phenomenon, and that Ryan and Haslam are closer to the mark.
Either way, what does the glass cliff theory mean for you? There are three things you should consider.
First, the very idea of comparing CEOs strictly on the basis of gender suggests that some sections of society are waiting, perhaps even hoping, for women to fail. Lest you think that is spin on my part, consider Ryan and Haslam's quote from a Times pundit about the original study: "The triumphant march of women into the country's boardrooms has wreaked havoc on companies' performance and share prices." I'm not suggesting you should be paranoid, but you should at least be aware that even in the 21st century, such attitudes are more prevalent than you might think.
This means you need to be conscious of how female leadership might be perceived by others.
A client, for example, might be primed by such media stories to worry about your ability to manage your company and/or deliver whatever service or good you have on offer, making him a tougher sell. A vendor may be tempted to offer you less favourable terms than he would to a male representative of your company.
Both vendors and clients might be surprised if you negotiate, as they may not expect a woman entrepreneur to push for a better deal.
Second, have a think about how the glass cliff might be affecting your self-image. I know many women struggle with "imposter syndrome;" that feeling that you really don't have the chops to be doing what you're doing and that any minute now, someone in authority will come bursting through the door and catch you out. How much of that might be sustained by what we see in the media?
Humans seem to remember bad things more easily than good things. High profile blowouts like Kim Campbell's election drubbing or the quick rise and fall of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz come to mind faster than Indra Nooyi's long and successful career with PepsiCo, or Susan Niczowski's fantastic work in making her own Summer Fresh food line a major international brand. It's important to arm yourself against your down days by deliberately reviewing your successes and those of others.
Finally, how much does the glass cliff concept affect your willingness to take risks? If you had seen that first Times story, and not the follow-up analysis, would that make you more timid in growing your company or exploring new export markets? If not, that's awesome. You'll notice above that I didn't suggest that women should hold back on expansion or on aggressive strategies. Only that they should be fully cognizant of the whole picture.
That last point is especially important, because organizations with a history of female leadership don't seem to have the glass cliff problem. "This suggests," say Bruckmüller and Branscombe, "that as people become more used to seeing women at the highest levels of management, female leaders won't be selected primarily for risky turnarounds."
So while perceptions and prejudices are still an issue, all that means is that there are plenty of opportunities to be pioneers and role models. Are you up for it? I know I am.
Chandra Clarke is the president of Scribendi, an award-winning, ISO-certified company that provides document revision services to corporations and SMBs around the world. She blogs about the issues particular to women entrepreneurs at NeverPink.com.
More columns by Chandra Clarke