How to avoid a poisoned chalice

24 May, 2020 - 00:05 0 Views

The Sunday Mail

Women & Leadership
Maggie Mzumara

ARE women victims of the glass cliff?

After shattering the glass ceiling, women leaders often have to deal with precarious situations, which affect their careers thereafter. A glass cliff, according to Michelle Ryan, is phenomenon in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high.

After all is said and done, the glass cliff effect can feel like a set up. But is it? Or is it a result of stereotypes?

Whichever way one looks at it, the glass cliff represents a real challenge and obstacle many women face as they strive to ascend company ranks and prove their mettle in high stakes positions. Theresa May is a classic example of a woman who shattered the glass ceiling.

She became British Prime Minister only to come face-to-face with one of the steepest cliffs in the history of female ascension.

She found herself leading an effort to solve a crisis that was not of her making.

May took on the job when no man who had previously jockeyed for it wanted to touch it.

Although she was not the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, like Margaret Thatcher before her, she came to power at a time of turmoil. Similarly, when Marissa Mayer became chief executive officer of Yahoo! in July 2012, she was brought in at a time of instability.

Mayer, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard and also Meg Whitman also of Hewlett Packard, are all examples of women leaders who have fallen off the glass cliff.

They were appointed to manage crises.

Often times women so positioned are blamed for the crisis even though it was not of their making. And if they are not able to fix the crisis in a short period of time, they are then replaced by men in what is known as the “saviour effect”.

Penalised for failing

In a glass cliff situation, there is increased scrutiny and women are unfairly penalised when they fail. Former head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, once remarked: “When the situation is really, really bad you bring in the woman.”

Lagarde faced a glass cliff of her own at the IMF but managed to manoeuvre and deliver.

In fact, several other women have successfully navigated glass cliffs, including Mary Barra of General Motors.  In Zimbabwe there are women who have not fallen off the glass cliffs too.

These include Chipo Mtasa of TelOne, who has steadied the ship amid numerous challenges including a crippling legacy debt. Nancy Guzha of Cairns also continues to deliver in a very difficult macro environment.

There are several others like them. Women must do more than men to protect their agency in the workplace, more so in high stakes positions. But what can a woman do to avoid a glass cliff?  Or most importantly, how can she approach the cliff so as not to fall off?

Avoiding the glass cliff

Avoiding falling off the cliff requires understanding that women need to develop a level of empowerment and advocacy that male counterparts do not. Avoiding the glass cliff starts in the hiring process.

  • Define success and agree on expectations beforehand: By inquiring about goals you are less likely to have goal posts moved in the middle of the game or to be blind-sided by additional metrics. This provides a reference point that can be used to defend against unrealistic expectations which undergird the glass cliff phenomenon.
  • Learning to say “no”: Before taking any position, find out if the company is facing a difficult situation or transitional period. Just because something is offered does not mean it is a step up. Recently, Uber had difficulties finding a female chief executive officer because it was facing allegations of sexual misconduct and security concerns. The women who turned down the position may have done so because they saw it as a glass cliff waiting to happen.
  • Negotiate without compromise: It has been shown that women are four times less likely to negotiate their hiring package. By understanding what a position is worth, it is possible to be in the best position to be hired at the correct rate.
  • Understand what the issues are: If the situation seems to be a precarious one, it is crucial to know what the elements are of the current crisis and to understand if there is an action plan already in place to combat the difficulties.
  • Outline a long term solution: Part of the issue with a glass cliff is that it usually has to do with relatively immediate results. With a long term plan in place, there is less recourse for those who seek to oust a woman executive just because the situation seems dire in the short term.
  • Negotiate to handle risk: If the company is in a precarious situation, make sure the position is made to be worth your while. Be sure to research comparable salary and benefits for a position that fits the situation.
  • Do not be afraid to walk away: Being set up for failure will be a more terrible blow than a simple “no, thank you”. If the position looks like it skirts the edge of a precipice, perhaps this is not the time to take it.

After all is said and done, helping to create gender parity in boardrooms is essential to dealing with the glass cliff effect. In addition to cracking the glass ceiling, women must navigate the glass cliff hurdles to protect their career trajectory.  It goes without saying that they will need help achieving this. Both male and female colleagues need to provide ongoing support for the success of their female CEOs and their corporation. There is no easy fix for gender bias except to create a corporate culture which actively promotes and supports women’s careers.

Maggie Mzumara is a leadership, communication and media strategist as well as corporate trainer. She advocates women leadership and is founder of Success in Stilettos (SiS), a leadership development platform for women. Contact her on [email protected] or on Twitter @magsmzumara.


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