Welcome to the glass cliff, 2.0

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A woman in a t-shirt that reads “The Wing women’s club & community, established 2016.”

An employee at The Wing, a coworking space in Soho, New York. Recently their CEO Audrey Gelman resigned amid outrage over the treatment of black and brown employees. | Amelia Holowaty Krales for Vox

Companies bringing in new leaders to help with race might also be setting them up to fail.

Corporate America is scrambling to walk the walk on racial justice, and the people companies enlist to help them do it might face a rough path ahead.

We’re in the midst of a reckoning on systemic racism in America, and the conversation is playing out at high-profile levels in the corporate world. In media, outlets such as Bon Appétit, Refinery29, and the New York Times have seen major leadership departures amid racial strife. The CEOs of CrossFit, the Wing, and Reformation have exited. And industry to industry, company to company, who does and doesn’t hold power is under examination.

Many companies are promising to do better. They say they’re aware that black people and people of color are woefully underrepresented in their ranks and often especially at the top levels. And in the months and weeks to come, we’re likely to see companies start to make new hires and build out their diversity and inclusion efforts in the name of waking up on race. The shoes of more than one white executive, editor, or founder are likely to be filled by a black leader.

Of course that’s a good thing — right now, I can literally count the number of black Fortune 500 CEOs on one hand. But there’s no denying that the people who will be asked to take on those roles aren’t walking into the rosiest of situations. Their predecessors are leaving a mess behind them, one they’ll be asked to clean up. And it’s not just a mess on race. We’re also still in the midst of a pandemic and a major economic downturn.

“The issue is you’re not only bringing in this person to fix the firm, but they’re not operating from baseline,” said Chanda Daniels, co-founder of the Reclaim, an intersectional women’s rights and gender equity organization. “They have so much work to do [on fixing office culture] than their predecessor ever had to do. And on top of that, they have to outperform their predecessor to justify them being in the position.”

Many of these people will find themselves on the “glass cliff,” a phenomenon experienced by women and minorities where they’re elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly. If they succeed, the reward is high. Problem is, the risk of failure is unusually high, too.

“You’re way up where everybody can see you, so you’ve been elevated to a really important position, but it’s incredibly precarious, because you’re standing on a cliff made of glass,” said Lex Washington, who studies gender, diversity, and bias at work at Oklahoma State University. “Usually, the level of risk we’re talking about is such that unless things turn around, there will be an immediate or large-scale consequence.”

On the glass cliff and risking a fall

In early June, Alexis Ohanian, the founder and former CEO of Reddit, announced he would step down from the internet forum’s board and was encouraging the company to replace him with a black candidate. “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” he said at the time. Reddit has since named Michael Seibel, the black CEO of startup accelerator Y Combinator, as Ohanian’s replacement.

The maneuver is meaningful — a company acting on diversity is a lot better than talking about how it’s important — but it’s not a cure-all.

Reddit has been plagued with racist vitriol since its inception and saw its former CEO, Ellen Pao, viciously harassed by its users. As Kaitlyn Tiffany at the Atlantic outlines, CEO Steve Huffman’s recent letter to employees declaring “Black Lives Matter” was met with an open letter signed by millions of subscribers calling on Huffman and the board to take more meaningful action on the racist content it hosts. To be sure, Seibel isn’t being tasked with solving all of Reddit’s problems — he’s on the board, not CEO. And he’s got his own accelerator to run.

It’s an inexact example of the glass cliff phenomenon, but it shows the point. Seibel is coming in to help solve a problem in a less-than-ideal situation — a situation Ohanian is walking away from.

To back up a bit, most people have heard of the “glass ceiling,” a metaphor for the invisible barrier that keeps women from achieving the highest positions in business and politics. The glass cliff is a play on that — the person’s made it up there, but they’re highly visible and looking down, and the glass could shatter and they could fall off the cliff at any moment.

The term was coined by two researchers at the University of Exeter in 2005. They looked at the 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange that make up the FTSE 100 index to see what the circumstances were as men and women were brought onto their boards. They discovered that in times of stock market decline, firms that brought women onto their boards were likelier to have experienced a bad performance in the preceding five months than those that brought on men.

Later, researchers at Utah State University followed up, taking a look at Fortune 500 company CEO trends over 15 years, and had similar findings. Basically, women and people of color are likelier than white men to be promoted as chief executive at companies that are doing poorly.

“When firms are doing poorly, the really qualified white male candidates say, ‘I don’t want to step into this,’” Allison Cook, one of the Utah State researchers, told me in an interview in 2018. “Women and minorities might feel like this might be their only shot, so they need to go ahead and take it.”

The research on the glass cliff, especially when it comes to people of color, isn’t extensive, in large part because there are so few examples of them reaching the upper echelons of corporate America. Right now, there are only five black CEOs in the Fortune 500. And there has only ever been one black woman Fortune 500 CEO — Ursula Burns at Xerox, who stepped down in 2016. (Mary Winston served as Bed Bath & Beyond’s interim CEO, but she didn’t get the permanent spot.)

Researchers also point to sports as an example that the glass cliff exists for people of color. A study of NCAA Division I basketball coaches from 1979 to 2009 found that minority coaches were more likely to be hired by a team with a losing record and last in the spot for a year less than their white counterparts in the position. In other words, they were brought into already precarious situations, and they were given a shorter time frame to succeed.

A lot of people are willing and excited to take on the risk — it’s an opportunity to prove themselves and to gain visibility. People of color are often very visible because of their identities (they’re the only person of color in the room), but they’re overlooked for their professional skills.

“An executive who can come in and prove himself or herself … if you can do your job then, you will have earned your stripes,” said Soledad O’Brien, a longtime broadcaster and producer.

But if they fail — and because they’re often walking into uncertain situations, it’s very possible — it can be detrimental in the long term. “The glass cliff phenomenon might actually perpetuate underrepresentation in the long run. If minority leaders are more likely to become leaders of organizations that are failing, then their chances of failure are significantly higher than normal,” said Desmond Leung, who researches industrial organization psychology at the City University of New York. “And if they do fail, this may perpetuate stereotypes that minorities aren’t well-suited for leadership.”

“Am I expecting this black woman to come in and change everything just because she is a black woman?”

Many companies examining their workforces, C-suites, and boardrooms right now are making an unsurprising discovery: It’s all very white. And posting a black box declaring Black Lives Matter on Instagram and calling it a day isn’t a sufficient fix. Their customers, their workers, and much of the American public want better. So they’re scrambling to make changes, and make them fast.

Paying attention to and taking action on diversity is important. But what’s also important is how it’s done.

Rebecca Carroll, a writer and host at WNYC, has been outspoken about the obstacles she’s encountered in her decades in journalism as a black woman. She has recounted many times her experiences at various outlets where she was undermined, underappreciated, and overlooked.

I spoke with her about what she makes of the current moment, and what it will look like if more black leaders are brought into the fold to clean up after their white predecessors. She emphasized her concerns that black people will be brought into positions created for white people, when some of those positions need to be rethought entirely.

“You can’t just give up your position on a board and hire a black woman in a role where a white man was, because the rules are different. The way that black woman then has to embody the space, there’s no room for her to be who she is and how she might be the chairman of the board or a vice president or a manager,” she said. “That’s one of the things that’s very rarely addressed. It’s not just the hire, it’s not just changing the culture, it’s also rewriting and reimagining these positions that are being filled.”

Companies risk tokenism — pulling in one or a handful of people of color to put on a better face, say, “Look at us and how we’re doing better,” and calling it a day. But if they want to succeed, they need to give whoever they bring in the support they need to succeed and provide clear metrics of what that success looks like.

“Am I expecting this black woman to come in and change everything just because she is a black woman? If the answer is yes, that’s not being set up for success,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, chief executive and founder of ReadySet, a diversity consulting firm.

As corporations bring in black workers and leaders to help set their new agendas, experts say it’s important for those leaders to be clear about what they need and how it will be provided to them. Washington, who in 2018 interviewed nearly 60 black female executives about the intersectional invisibility they experienced at work, said they were intentional about coming in with a plan and being candid about their needs in negotiations before taking on high-risk positions. If they were asked to help turn things around, fine, but what does a turnaround look like? And when that happens, what’s next? What does the job look like at a normal pace?

“It really comes down to intentionality. All of these places have been talking a good game, and they haven’t really been doing the work to bring in diverse people,” O’Brien said.

Once new people are in the spot, it’s vital that they’re listened to. “White folks in a position of power really do have to practice deference, and that’s something that has to come into play for any of these racial reckoning moments to have any staying power, is that there has to be a level of deference that happens,” Carroll said.

It’s also worth noting that the work is exhausting. And again, right now, black leaders aren’t just stepping in at companies with racial strife. They’ll also have to make tough decisions about how to respond to the ongoing pandemic and what to do about the economic conditions it has created. This will likely force some tough decisions in terms of where to spend.

“It takes a toll on people when they take these positions,” Washington said. “The current racism pandemic that we’re facing and the crisis that that creates in American workplaces is a different kind of crisis, and it’s one that implicates race and gender and makes it the center of the crisis. The people who take on those leadership roles, if they belong to those groups, do take quite a lot of emotional toll, and a lot of toll on the workplace as well.”

She added that the stereotypes they have long faced don’t go away, either.

There’s an opportunity here that shouldn’t be wasted

Of all the moments for corporate America to have its big racial reckoning, this may not be the ideal one. (To be clear, it should have come earlier, not later.) If anything, a lot of companies are looking to make cuts right now, not expand. And as they bring in new leadership to try to address toxic cultures, in many cases, they’ll also have to figure out how to keep the companies afloat.

It’s not clear who’s going to take over for the Wing CEO Audrey Gelman, but whoever it is will have to try to tackle keeping a coworking space in business when nobody wants to be in the same room with strangers. And beyond corporations, look at politics. Joe Biden is under pressure to choose a black woman as his running mate. If he does, she will be tasked with taking on all the normal running-mate tasks, plus doing it in a crisis situation in the country, all while being the campaign’s (and the entire Democratic Party’s) likely top surrogate on race.

Many of the people I spoke with for this story acknowledged some big challenges ahead, but they also noted it’s a big opportunity, and if something will ever change, it’s now.

Hutchinson, who runs a diversity consulting firm, said that at the start of the coronavirus crisis, many cuts companies were making were to human resources and, ultimately, their diversity and inclusion programs. Now that’s reversed course. It’s not clear whether the momentum will last, but it could. “If there is ever a moment for revolutionary change, that moment is now. That doesn’t necessarily mean that change is going to happen, but if that change were going to happen, it’s going to happen now,” she said.

O’Brien, who runs her own media company, Soledad O’Brien Productions, struck an even more optimistic tone. “I never think of it as a negative that you’re walking into a broken situation in a pandemic, because honestly, when you’re a leader, you like opportunities to lead,” she said.

There’s a difference between waking up on race performatively versus in reality. Plenty of firms interview a “diverse slate” of candidates, only to wind up hiring the white candidate they had already pegged for the job. In news, feeling like you’re sourcing from people from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders doesn’t cut it. You want to know whether you’re interviewing too many white guys? You can count them. The same goes for the boardroom, the executive suite, and the worker roster.

“If it matters to you, measure it,” O’Brien said. “If you don’t care, stop talking about caring.”


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