With the announcement that the long-struggling internet company Yahoo has hired a female CEO, Marissa Mayer — who, it so happens, is also pregnant — people are talking about a phenomenon sometimes called “the glass cliff”: When women get appointed to leadership positions in the corporate world, a disproportionate amount of time they’re facing a dire situation.
“The glass cliff” theory was formulated by two British academics, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam. In 2008, the writer Clive Thompson summed up their work this way:
In one study, they took 83 businesspeople — roughly half of them women — and described to them two companies, one that was steadily improving in profitability and another that was steadily declining. The subjects were told to pick a new financial director for the firm and were presented with three candidates: a man and a woman who were identical in experience and a lesser-qualified male. The subjects were slightly more likely to pick a man to lead the successful firm but were far more likely to pick the woman to lead the failing one. Two other experiments with similar designs yielded the same result: When presented with men and women to lead a company that’s going down the tubes, people pick the woman.