OPINION: Glass shoes, ceilings and the cliff

Apr 18, 2024 | Opinion

When I was young, my career-driven, single mother was always regarded as different.

Her aspirations for her career and her choices regarding her personal life were looked upon with disdain by society. It wasn’t the norm in India to be an ambitious woman.

The fact that a woman could take control of her life and get the opportunity to choose her career over tending to a home was alien to that society.

A woman who was more educated than most of her male counterparts, someone who was intellectually sound and had a spine to support herself was such a foreign concept to 1990s India, and society’s first instinct was to demonize it.

The breaking of these metaphorical restraints by women is commonly referred to as breaking the glass ceilings. This was taught to me as a child and I was told never to back down from my goals.

According to a 2013 Perspectives in Health Information Management study by Merida L. Johns, research shows that companies that promote women consistently outperform their competitors.

I have witnessed the unfairness of a patriarchal social structure as a woman in a male-dominated field and sometimes, the only woman in a film crew in India.

The concept of a glass cliff became common when more women started stepping into breadwinner roles.

This phenomenon refers to women being offered leadership positions within their firms during a crisis.

However, this is not a recent discovery.

The term was coined in 2005, in The Glass Cliff: Exploring the Dynamics Surrounding the Appointment of Women to Precarious Leadership Positions by researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter.

The study was conducted almost two decades ago and is still relevant to this day.

The obvious nature of the phenomenon is to have a scapegoat for when the organization goes belly-up. This is a win-win situation for those pulling the strings.

If the woman fails, she takes the fall for everything that goes wrong. If she succeeds, the organization perseveres and everyone reaps the monetary benefits.

In January 2009, Carol Bartz was appointed the CEO of Yahoo when it was struggling. Despite her four-year tenure, she was fired around two and a half years later alleging unhappy investors and a failure to generate new revenue streams.

Anne Mulcahy, the CEO of Xerox from 2001 to 2009 was appointed to manage the company at a time of bankruptcy. Mulcahy managed to successfully rescue the organization and was succeeded by Ursula Burns, the first black woman to lead Xerox.

Similarly, Boeing announced a change in management and leadership on March 25, 2024, and Stephanie Pope was named Commercial Airplanes CEO amid the airline’s alleged safety and quality concerns.

The glass cliff phenomenon is not only applicable to women, but it also includes minority groups.

According to a 2013 study by Alison Cook and Christy Glass in the Strategic Management Journal, minorities are more likely to be given leadership positions when the organization’s performance is declining, so that they can be replaced by white males.

They call this the “saviour effect.”

First, we must fight for opportunities and then fight to stay.