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Women, The Glass Cliff, And Defying the Odds

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The glass cliff phenomenon was defined in the last decade, though it is something we've seen play out in business for years before that. The glass cliff is defined by two University of Exeter professors as companies tapping women leaders in times of crisis, when the odds are stacked against anyone's success. Marissa Mayer taking the reins at Yahoo -- a once-hot Internet company she is charged with pulling back to relevance -- is the most recent and high-profile example.

The experience isn't specific to women in business, however. We see it in politics, too. People will position a woman candidate as a front-runner if the race seems like a long shot for anyone. Consider these women:

Called in to be the fresh (female) face of Senator John McCain's stumbling presidential campaign in 2008, then-Governor Sarah Palin was thrown into the big leagues before the party fully vetted her, and she stepped up to the plate nonetheless. This was the glass cliff phenomenon playing out on the presidential stage.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's name is floated as a potential GOP presidential candidate for 2016, even with her recent approval ratings at just 44 percent and an uphill battle for re-election in 2014. She became the state's first woman to hold the office with her 2010 election -- and the first Indian-American woman governor in the country -- so she's no stranger to tough odds. Yet, positioning her as a redeemer for the party looks a lot like pushing her toward the glass cliff.

We know from Barbara Lee Family Foundation research that women must hit the ground running and show their qualifications straight off the starting line. So being posed in the press as a front-runner should be a great thing for women, right?

In an environment where women have to work harder, reach higher, and prove more than men to reach the same political goals, sometimes being dubbed as the front-runner can be a double-edged sword -- as are many issues related to women and politics.

In current races, for example, the female front-runner phenomenon is playing out in New York City where Council Speaker Christine Quinn was poised as a star mayoral candidate. She started out in the leading spot, but has dropped to second place, behind public advocate Bill de Blasio (perhaps this week's stellar endorsement from the New York Times will help change that).

Is framing a woman as a "front-runner" early in a race for elected office akin to pushing her toward the glass cliff? Certain cases of the front-runner-as-martyr are evidence that yes, sometimes it is. Some women candidates, however, have proved that theory wrong. I am confident they will continue to do so.

What's most important is that it is so often women who are willing to step up to the plate and take on an uphill battle, even with a tough climb ahead. Case in point: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is in the national spotlight for taking on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- a fight not for the faint of heart or weak willed -- and she is proving she is up for the task.

Qualified, competent, confident women can take the lead in a race right out of the gate -- and they can win. A few women I hope to see do just that:

Rhode Island State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, known nationally for her economic qualifications and hard-fought reform of the state's pension system -- may be weighing a bid for governor. If she chooses to run, she has the chops -- and the public support -- to win.

In Pennsylvania, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz is considered the woman to beat for the governor's seat, polling more than 10 points ahead of her closest potential opponent.

And on the national stage, Hillary Clinton is the ultimate example. In 2008, Clinton was considered a front-runner for her party's presidential nomination. However, the real power brokers -- mostly male, of course -- did not get behind her. That is not the case now.

Clinton's position as the Democratic presidential front-runner-in-chief poises her as the candidate to whom other potential candidates will defer when weighing their decisions to run. (Let's face it: Many of the guys floating their names for a presidential nod are really VP hopefuls). Here's hoping Madam Secretary will opt for a title change to Madam President.

I'm grateful for these strong, smart, qualified women with the grace and grit to jump in and run. The more women run, the more they will defy the odds.