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Women May Be Hired As Executives To Clean Up Messes, But They Also Make Companies More Profitable

When Hillary Clinton decided to discontinue her campaign for presidency in 2008, she mentioned that, due to the work of her supporters in their attempts to elect our country’s first female president, the now-famous metaphorical glass ceiling “had about 18 million cracks in it.”

Since then, the glass ceiling has become an important symbol for ambitious women, who attempt to contribute their own cracks in hopes that we might one day dismantle it all together.

But a recent study shows that there might be a more nefarious side to the glass ceiling: its treacherous sister structure, characterized by researchers as the “glass cliff.”

According to data analyzed by two Utah State University researchers and published in June, women and minorities are disproportionately brought in to lead companies and businesses during times of distress.

By surveying the CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period, they learned that “occupational minorities” — defined as white women and men and women of color — were more likely than white men to be promoted to the position of CEO when the company was considered “weak performing” or to be in some form of trouble, be it financial or public relations-related.

GM CEO Mary Barra provides a perfect example of a woman who was brought in during a time of tumult, and has since attempted to turn the company around.

She’s faced intense scrutiny after the announcement that millions of car models had to be recalled, and many a Congressional hearing for the GM defects and (what looks like a) consequent cover-up.

The study posits that women are viewed with more “emotional sensitivity, relational style, and interpersonal skills” that might help with public perception when the corporate leader (like Barra) has to answer difficult questions and confront criticism.

The data proves that these businesses themselves (or at least their CEO-appointing Board of Directors) are defaulting to the worst of gendered stereotypes: promulgating that women are sensitive, kind and will garner sympathy in times of company-wide crisis.

It’s troubling that this study reveals women and minorities are elevated to positions of power to literally clean up white men’s messes.

But it’s also disheartening that we have to look at this issue from such a perspective. Whereas we often point to a man’s accomplishments when he’s promoted to a senior level position, it’s sad that we feel obligated to probe into the circumstances behind a female employee’s advancement to greater responsibility.

Unfortunately, it appears as though some women are not promoted for their skillsets and value to a company, but rather for the public’s general feelings of how women should act or be treated.

“Today Show” host Matt Lauer received criticism in his attempts to question whether Barra was a beneficiary (or victim of, depending on your opinion) this trend.

When Lauer directly asked whether Barra had been brought in to assuage Congress and the general public’s distrust of GM during this volatile time, however, Barra strongly assured that this was “absolutely not true.”

Her impressive résumé of previous leadership and management positions certainly seems to support her claim.

But it still doesn’t explain the data that was published in the Strategic Management Journal. Instead, the study’s claim is only buoyed by other information we have on the appointment and tenure of female CEOs.

Perhaps this hiring of women for occasionally the wrong reasons is why female CEOs have a markedly shorter and more tumultuous time in office than men do.

While only 3 percent of CEOs of top companies are women, female CEOs are forced out from their positions at a much higher rate: 38 percent to men’s 27 percent.

Maybe this is because women are being set up for the fall — or rather the push off the supposed “glass cliff.”

This study provokes an interesting point and an obvious trend, but it entirely misses another phenomenon that stems from female leaders.

According to data from a number of sources, women-led businesses are simply more successful than those that are helmed by men (for proof of this occurrence, look no further than this financial analysis or this study by McKinsey).

So, instead of simply being hired because their gender can generate more sympathy, perhaps women are hired in times of corporate trouble because they’re the ones who get the good results for the business’ bottom line.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Katie Gonzalez

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Katie Gonzalez is a contributing writer covering fashion and feminism. Katie graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and currently lives in Haifa, Israel, splitting time between academic research and scouting fo ...
Katie Gonzalez is a contributing writer covering fashion and feminism. Katie graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and currently lives in Haifa, Israel, splitting time between academic research and scouting fo ...

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