You’ve heard of the glass ceiling but did you know there was such a thing as a glass cliff?
It’s a term that suggests women who have triumphantly smashed through the glass ceiling are then left teetering on the edge of an abyss.
The phrase isn’t new – it was first coined by Exeter University’s Michelle Ryan in 2004 – but it was thrust back into the spotlight recently by the sacking of The New York Times’ executive editor of two years, Jill Abramson, who has the first woman appointed to the role.
Ryan defines the glass cliff as an extension of the glass ceiling whereby women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions which carry a greater risk of failure and criticism.
Kieran Moore, chief executive of Ogilvy Public Relations Australia, says local examples of women being appointed to sinking ships in business are thin on the ground.
But it’s a different story when it comes to politics.
“Carmen Lawrence became the Australia’s first female Premier in February 1990 following corruption allegations against the Labor governments led by her two predecessors: Brian Burke and Peter Dowding,” says Moore.
“Joan Kirner became Premier of Victoria in August 1990, with some of the State’s financial institutions on the brink of insolvency, a huge budget deficit and a deeply divided Labor Party.
“Kristina Keneally became NSW Premier in 2009 when the NSW Labor Party was in its death throes.
“All led their governments to defeat at their first elections as Premier.”
Our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was also been linked to the glass cliff.
The reason the glass cliff metaphor may not be playing out in Australian companies could be because the glass ceiling is still well and truly intact.
The number of women on ASX 200 companies boards is just 18.2% as of May 28 this year, according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
While the figure is the highest yet, and it has been growing steadily since 2010, there are still 41 boards within the ASX 200 without any women.
In 2012 the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that only seven companies had a female CEO (3.5%).
“The problem with finding an example in Australian business is there are pitifully few women in charge of businesses and shamefully few on boards,” says Moore.
“The shocking paucity of women in power positions is an indictment on Australian business, politics and society in general and the fact that the first female premiers in three states came to power only in moments of crisis for their governments indicates that it exists.”
Jane Huxley, managing director of internet radio service Pandora in Australia and New Zealand, believes evidence surrounding the ‘glass cliff’ in Australia is lacking and has not previously come across the term.
“The real story here is making up new terms to describe what are actually quite normal business practices,” says Huxley.
So Huxley has coined a few of her own terms and hopes B&T readers will chime in with their own:
- Grass Cliff: Being pushed after being discovered eating grain fed beef.
- Brass Cliff: You get pushed off this one for going just a shade too far in the latest “metallic’s as daywear” trend.
- A$$ Cliff: Normally applied to men who don’t wear belts – a sackable offence. Sometimes referred to as “the company moneybox”
- Farce Cliff: Appearing to jump off the cliff, only to find that it’s a box just one inch off the ground
- Pass Cliff: Voluntarily jumping off the cliff “I’ll take a pass, thanks” and/or being asked to leave for picking someone up in the lunchroom.
Huxley says the term is not a concern for her because she has “enough to worry about without inventing stuff”.
Huxley also says she would “absolutely” go into a leadership position at a company that was in trouble.
“But that has nothing to do with gender and more to do with the ‘type’ of person you are,” she explains.
“I am a fixer by nature. There are also builders, growers, dreamers and inventors who may not fare so well in companies who are in trouble.
“This is why recruiting for roles like this should be more about behavioral characteristics than track record, and should be reviewed over the lifecycle of companies.”
But if the glass cliff is real, could it actually be speaking to women’s strengths?
Cathy O’Connor, who is one of just a handful of female chief executives at Australian media companies (she was recently joined by the REA Group’s new chief Tracey Fellows), thinks so.
“One approach is that often really difficult corporate turnarounds do require people that can really get in there and move work forces towards a change. And I do think that women are particularly good at instilling loyalty, they are good communicators and drive workforce engagement around corporate strategy,” O’Connor, who is CEO of NOVA Entertainment, explains.
“I’m not saying men aren’t good at it. Perhaps that is why women are attracted to tough jobs or turnarounds.”
Helen Davies, NOVA Entertainment’s Melbourne general manager, says there is no denying that gender equality is a real issue. But she wants the there to be less focus on the invisible barriers and more on achievements.
“Lets acknowledge the issues 100%, but spend as much time as we can in our busy lives focusing on talking about the positive achievements of women and what women are doing,” Davies adds.
Ogilvy PR’s Moore is hopeful her seven year old daughter will look back at this time from a glass ceiling/cliff free society.
“But the situation has hardly improved in the past couple of decades so I’m not confident it will improve in the next 20 years.”