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Marissa Mayer deserves to be criticized. She is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar public company, earns millions in compensation, employs thousands, and stands as the gatekeeper for massive potential innovation because she runs Yahoo, one of the few huge tech companies with the the resources and scale to effect it. So, okay, take a hard look. See what she's done right, see what she's done wrong. She's been at the helm for two years—that is enough time to get a sense of what kind of leadership she is showing.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the Glass Cliff (opens in new tab). The fancy counterpart to the glass ceiling, reserved exclusively for those elite women who have cracked through it, the Glass Cliff is what those women often stand at the edge of, poised to be pushed off faster and harder than their male counterparts (opens in new tab).
The data shows that women, who are overwhelmingly less likely than equally qualified men to be elevated to the top jobs, have a better chance of being promoted when the company or organization is in distress (opens in new tab). Got a mess? Bring in a woman to clean it up! Of course, that means taking over a broken, dysfunctional organization rather than assuming seamless control of something that is puttering along nicely. Which means it's going to take longer to fix things. Which means that the stakes are higher. Feet are tapping. You said you wanted the job, you said you were qualified. All right, now prove it.
As more women are promoted to top-dog positions, we see more of them perched perilously close to the edge of glass cliffs, particularly within the last year. We saw Julia Pierson getting the boot from the Secret Service (opens in new tab) because she had not yet fixed the problems she inherited. We saw Jill Abramson get summarily ejected from the New York Times (opens in new tab) for issues that paled in comparison to what had been tolerated from predecessors. We saw Mary Barra named CEO of General Motors (opens in new tab) following appalling negligence at the company, which started well before her tenure. (Though it must be noted, GM was on an upswing when Barra took the reins (opens in new tab), as the government had just sold its final shares of GM, after investing in them during the financial collapse in 2009.) Even in the hacking mess with Sony—which revealed fault lines deep within the company that went to management, structure and lily-livered leadership—the Sony exec you've heard of is Amy Pascal (opens in new tab), not Michael Lynton, the CEO who was near-invisible until the President weighed in (and still has stayed amazingly under the radar, while TMZ stalks Pascal at airports (opens in new tab)). Say what you want about individual circumstances and personal responsibility—and oh, the usual suspects do!—but "Glass Cliff" is a term because it's a trend. And it's one that lots of women in power can relate to.
Which brings us back to Marissa Mayer. Yesterday, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! (opens in new tab) by Nicholas Carlson hit the shelves, teased by a cover story in the New York Times magazine (opens in new tab) and an excerpt in Business Insider (opens in new tab). Both are fascinating and well-reported, and if you're interested in the machinations at Yahoo they're worth a read. But if you're interested in even-handed coverage of women as compared to their similarly-situated male counterparts, you should know that they come with some glaring caveats.
The Times titled its excerpt "What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs." This is what's called being set up for a fall. What? You dare try to reach the genius heights of Steve Jobs? Impudent lass! It should be noted that the excerpt does nothing to establish that Mayer was actually trying to be Steve Jobs, other than noting that she quoted him inspirationally (a tic of any leader in the Valley) and has cited Jobs having had five years to turn around Apple (she's had two at Yahoo).
But even if she was trying to be Steve Jobs—innovator, leader, money-maker— that's a bad thing? Apparently yes, if you're a woman. This headline evokes the trope of a woman getting too big for her britches—fairly common in the Glass Cliff narrative.
Witness the complaints about how "brusque (opens in new tab)" Jill Abramson was at the Times, how she made decisions without consulting underlings, how she forged ahead based on her conviction and goals. (Crazy thing for a leader to do, I know.) She was "mercurial (opens in new tab)" (a word that was oft-attributed to Jobs (opens in new tab), by the way). When Steve Jobs does it, it's genius at work; when a woman does it, it's a fireable offense.
(A side note: One of the activist shareholders stirring up the pot at Yahoo against Mayer's leadership is a fund manager by the name of Eric Jackson, who two years ago wrote a pilloried piece for Forbes about Sheryl Sandberg getting too big for her britches (opens in new tab). He apologized and his piece was taken down, but it is worth noting.)
Both excerpts present a detailed breakdown of Mayer's attempts to turn the flailing Yahoo around. A fair target—but the implicit criticisms don't bear the scrutiny of comparison with similarly-situated male CEOs. Entrepreneur Stewart Ugelow breaks down (opens in new tab) how Mayer's decisions are presented critically where similar actions by Google's Larry Page, AOL's Tim Armstrong and Apple's Tim Cook were lauded. (References to Mayer's meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive iterations on design are presented as meddling in the Times excerpt, yet it was Steve Jobs who was famous for being obsessed with perfection in the design process.) In the Business Insider excerpt, employees chafe against decisions imposed on them "because Marissa said so," as though an edict from a CEO is somehow out of line. Jeff Bezos is known to be similarly autocratic—"a micromanager with a limitless spring of new ideas, and he reacts harshly to efforts that don't meet his rigorous standards. (opens in new tab)" Silicon Valley entrepreneuer and investor Jason Calacanis sums it up thusly (opens in new tab): "Here's a shocker: a powerful tech lead, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has a couple personality quirks and might not have the highest EQ."
There's nothing wrong with criticizing a CEO, or calling them out for being mercurial, autocratic, rigid, imperious, whatever . But the key difference here is that for leaders like Jobs and Bezos, these qualities are not presented as flaws, and they are not used to agitate for their ouster. With women like Abramson and Mayer, these qualities are presented as central, damning proof of failure.
On a Glass Cliff, women are held to different standards: the leash is shorter, one strike and she's out. Julia Pierson's Secret Service may have been in shambles, but she inherited it that way, and the mess had been years in the making (opens in new tab). She'd had the job for a year and a half (opens in new tab). Meanwhile, her successor, Joseph Clancy, was hailed as a savior, having not lost his own job (opens in new tab) after the last big Secret Service breach when the Salahis had crashed a State dinner, on his watch. (Remember that?) Jill Abramson's predecessors had exponentially longer leashes (Howell Raines held on to his job months after the Jayson Blair scandal (opens in new tab), Abe Rosenthal was legendarily caustic (opens in new tab)). So while it's always going to be a useful straw man to argue that it's all about individual underperformance, that's not the issue.
Of course not all women are going to be perfect, or even competent. Just like men! But since all the data shows that the women will have worked that much harder to get there, there's call for a pretty healthy benefit of the doubt. And hey, the system works—Mary Barra not only wasn't fired, she was immortalized by SNL as any other cold-blooded exec (opens in new tab)! I'd prefer our female execs to not be oily, obfuscating, and shady, but that's hardly a description limited to women. Perhaps nothing makes that point better than Donald Trump calling for Amy Pascal to be fired (opens in new tab).
The good news is, things are changing. Women leaders are slowly but surely increasing their share of the top spots (opens in new tab)—and the silver lining of so many more examples of Glass Cliff-perching means there's a greater, more mainstream, awareness of the phenomenon. Even before the Times' takedown of Mayer, there were dark (opens in new tab) cautions (opens in new tab) across (opens in new tab) media (opens in new tab) of her dangerous proximity to that clear, sharp edge. And she's still there. She's still the CEO of Yahoo (opens in new tab), and her fight is still on. The story's not over.
That doesn't mean she's in the clear to go ahead and screw up. It just may mean she's in the clear to screw up like a man.
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