Mary T. Barra – On the Glass Cliff

I never put all that much stock in the idea of the glass cliff. The suggestion that women leaders are more likely than their male counterparts to lead organizations that in some way are in trouble struck me as being somehow paranoid – as if women didn’t have enough on their hands getting to the top in the first place.     

The term “glass cliff” – a riff on the metaphor of the “glass ceiling” – was coined by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter in 2004. Their research led them to conclude that once women break through the glass ceiling to top leadership roles, they are anything but home free. To the contrary: they are more likely than men to be leaders in situations that for some reason are precarious – which means that they are more likely than men to fail at their appointed task.

I admit it: I could not help but think of the glass cliff when it became clear in recent weeks that General Motors was in trouble – in big trouble. If not necessarily with customers, certainly with regulators and safety advocates.

Mary Barra became CEO of G.M. only in January, when a big fuss was made over the fact that she is the first female CEO of a major American automobile company. However, what we did not know then and do know now is that G.M. was poised on the brink of a considerable crisis. We did not know then but do know now that not only has the car company been forced to undertake a major recall (some 1.6 million vehicles), but it might well be found ultimately liable for some 300 deaths resulting from a faulty ignition switch.  

This drama at G.M. will take years to play out. But this much is apparent even now. Instead of being able to focus on building the company, Mary Barra will instead be distracted if not derailed by what has already become a major institutional scandal. The chances are good that when she took the position of chief executive she knew what was in store. It’s hard to believe that she was completely blindsided by the impending crisis. Still, what should have been an exemplar of a woman in a position of leadership seems more evidently an exemplar of a woman precariously perched – on the edge of a glass cliff.    






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