Women on the verge

by Adrienne Kimmell, Executive Director

The chatter about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (as both an executive and, gasp, new mother) quieted to a dull buzz, only to be amplified recently with the company’s $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr. That acquisition seems to be a double-edged sword for Mayer. It shifted the focus back where it belongs—her business chops instead of her childcare choices—however briefly. But I have to wonder, as media observers point out, if it’s just the latest in Mayer’s glass cliff chronicles.

She took the reins at a fizzling Internet company and is now making an effort to up its cool factor (and bottom line) by purchasing the popular microblog site. Can she pull Yahoo back to relevance? Let’s all push our faces against the glass to gawk as she flails or fails!

The glass cliff phenomenon—defined by two University of Exeter professors [pdf] as companies tapping women leaders in times of crisis, when the odds are against them—isn’t specific to women in business. We see it play out in politics, too. Consider these examples:

Nikki Haley: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley became the state’s first woman to hold the office with her 2010 election—and the first Indian-American woman governor in the country. With her current approval rating at an unimpressive 44 percent; the state’s unemployment rate relatively high; and the flack over a member of her re-election committee making racist remarks, she’s facing a tough race in 2014. Yet, her name is still floated as a potential GOP presidential candidate for 2016, a redeemer for a party that’s seen better days. Glass cliff, indeed.

Patty Murray: Senator Patty Murray went from a “mom in tennis shoes” to the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Senate. And she took on the job no one wanted after a treacherous 2010 election cycle for Democrats: chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (on the heels of fundraiser extraordinaire Senator Chuck Schumer, no less). Some may have seen this as a set-up for a let-down. Instead, under Murray’s leadership, the DSCC raised $146 million, nearly $29 million more than their Republican counterparts. Democrats held onto all of their Senate seats except one and made gains elsewhere. Murray also helped bring a record number of women to the Senate. (Evidence, perhaps, that a woman can be poised at the edge of the cliff, but she doesn’t always fall off).

Sarah Palin: 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 she seemed to be ready. She was expected to be the saving grace for something that likely could not be saved.

We know women pay a higher price for missteps in business and in politics [pdf]. As this Harvard Business Review article points out, women business leaders are often isolated and lack the mentorship of the “old boys’ network” (Sound familiar?). Without this support system, they find it tough to bounce back in the face of failure. Men, on the other hand, quickly (and perhaps inexplicably) rebound from setbacks all the time – here’s looking at you Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, et al.

One important difference, however, between women in business and women in politics is that women in public office need to be elected. The hyper scrutiny of their performances isn’t limited to shareholders, the occasional blog post, and anonymous online commenters. Their employers are their constituents. In order to keep their jobs, they must show voters they are competent, confident, and qualified leaders who get results.

Let’s not lean on women only when a business or government is teetering on the brink of failure. Cynicism is the only winner in that scenario. Women are strong leaders who can get the job done in times of peril and prosperity.