On the Glass Cliff – Virginia Rometty, Marissa Mayer, and Mary Barra

I have written before about “the glass cliff.” It’s a term coined in 2004 by two British researchers who suggested that women were especially likely to ascend to top leadership roles during times of corporate crisis or downturn.  The implication is that women more than men are set up for failure.

Why this should be so is not entirely clear. The total number of CEOs who are women remains, of course, dismally low. So is it that women are so eager to become chief executive officers that they settle for circumstances that are far from optimum? Or is gender bias at some level of consciousness responsible for putting women in unusually precarious positions? Or is it perhaps that they are not given the resources needed to surmount difficult situations?

These questions come to mind in the wake of the revelations this week that under the leadership of Virginia Rometty, IBM has performed particularly poorly. Not only has the company failed to develop a successful strategy, it has, apparently, “propped up” its stock price in recent years by “buying back shares by the carload.” The implication, in other words, is that not only has IBM failed to perform well under Rometty’s leadership, it has concealed its weaknesses by “financial engineering.”* How long IBM’s board members and, especially, shareholders will tolerate this downward drift remains obviously to be seen. But no doubt about it: Rometty is precariously perched.

The same has to be said about the much ballyhooed Marissa Mayer, who famously was pregnant when she became that rare bird: a female CEO of a prominent tech company. But her sailing since then has hardly been smooth. As of this writing she is trying to fend off a challenge from an activist investor (Starboard Value) by preparing to detail her plans on the one hand for cost cutting, and on the other hand for acquiring one or more tech startups. Like Rometty, Mayer might survive the hard times. But whether her new plan “will appease shareholders, who are growing impatient with the CEO’s lack of progress in her more than two years at the company,” is uncertain.**

As to the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, it’s possible that she has already weathered the crisis. The question is whether there’s another shoe to drop at GM or whether the worst of the news – its culpability in covering up vehicle defects, with calamitous consequences – is already out. Whatever the future, there can be no gainsaying that she took over the helm at GM at a low moment in its history.

Bottom line is that in less than one year all three of these generally highly esteemed chief executive officers have come under heavy fire.

It’s enough to make a woman feel paranoid.


*See Andrew Ross Sorkin, “The Truth Hidden by IBM’s Buybacks,” New York Times, October 21, 2014.

** See Douglas MacMillan, “Yahoo CEO Set to Refresh Turnaround Plan, Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2014.




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