Why are these senior leaders in the news? Female Stereotypes and Glass Cliffs

Posted by on May 29, 2014 in Leadership, Self-awareness | 0 comments

GM CEO Barra

Why do the stories of Jill Abramson, newly fired executive editor of the New York Times, and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors matter?  Are these two leaders facing stormy situations because they’re women?  Is one about a woman paying for exhibiting male behavior, and the other about the glass cliff syndrome of letting women take the hit?

Abramson was fired by a privately held company.  We’ll never know the whole story.  She was said to be a poor collaborator, and difficult on her staff, according to owner Sulzberger, even though he acknowledged she produced a great version of the paper.   There’s also a “he said-she said” buzz about the underlying reason being salary sexism – that Abramson was being paid less than her colleagues and her approach to getting that changed was the final aggressive behavior that tipped the scales.   But wouldn’t this behavior be expected of a male editor? And if she hadn’t been tough and aggressive, would she ever have even made it to that career pinnacle?

Ex-Executive Editor Abramson

In a New York Times article, columnist David Carr addressed that issue.  “Some might suggest that these traits are all in the historical job description of a man editing The New York Times, but Arthur concluded “she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.” I like Jill and the version of The Times she made. But my reporting, including interviews with senior people in the newsroom, some of them women, backs up his conclusion.”

But could it be that the same behavior her colleagues (both male and female) would have accepted from a male editor, they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept from a female?  Their internal filters built from years of experience and culture reframed the behavior from a woman as unacceptable and shifted their judgment toward the negative.   Perhaps she was expected, as a woman, to be more collaborative in their leadership style, and she turned them off by violating their expectations?

I surely don’t know the answer but I am interested in the larger issue of how cultural stereotypes and expectations can color our judgments.

So what about the other woman in the news, Mary Barra, having to defend GM against allegations that they hid defects that should have prompted immediate recalls?  Was she appointed in January because of something called the “glass cliff?”

Coined by researchers in 2005, the term glass cliff refers to the pattern of appointing women to positions of power when companies are going bad.  The research says the rationale is two-fold:  highly competent men scatter because don’t want to be left holding the bag for past mistakes, leaving less competition.  Plus women don’t have the same networks and access to information that might make them reluctant.  Possibly, companies may hope that women will be seen as more empathetic when the problems go public.

The research has been limited so far, so it hasn’t gotten a lot of traction.  Some offer a different view of the phenomenon –  that women are hired in difficult times because they are great problem solvers, and have relational skills that make them skilled at crisis management.    That seems like a vast generalization, as well.

Again, I don’t know or particularly care about this particular news story.  What really bothers me is how few women sit in these top positions, so the data is  too limited to draw conclusions, and instead we make up our own stories.

Instead, maybe we should be asking what we can do about these filters that color our judgment without our awareness, that cause symphonies to hire fewer women than men unless the auditions are blind, that leave women and minorities out of our leadership and board ranks.

What do you think?




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