It's called the glass cliff. In a way, it's like the glass ceiling in reverse – and worse. Here's how it works, when a company is in trouble, they hire a female CEO because the first man on their list says, “No way," and the second man on their list says, “You've got to be kidding" because they don't want to go down with the ship. So, they move to the first woman that comes to mind, and she jumps at the chance of breaking through the glass ceiling.

The problem is, the gig is a non-starter because the company is in such terrible shape. So, the new female CEO may have shattered what was above her only to fall right back through to what's below. That, is the precarious glass cliff, the latest obstacle to women seeing to climb the ranks in all things business.

This is precisely what happened to Carol Bartz who was brought on as the CEO of Yahoo from 2009-2011 when the company was flailing. When things didn't get rise the way they had hoped, she was blamed and fired. And why did Yahoo believe that she couldn't “fix" things? Why because she's a woman, of course, and not because Yahoo was already too far gone – which it was.

So is it a bad idea for women to take these gigs even though the cliff may be looming? Well, Bartz, on the second-to-last episode of Freakonomics Radio's "The Secret Life of CEO's", says she should. But she shouldn't take it to mean the company wanted her because she was the best candidate, likely it was because she was the best scapegoat, “I think it's good that she takes it. I have no problem with that. But it's not that all of a sudden the boards wake up and say, 'Oh, there should be a female here.' … It's easier to hide behind: 'Well, of course, that failed, because it was female,'" Bartz explains.

And that is what makes this game so ugly. It's another way to “prove" that women aren't fit to be CEOs, that they are incapable of leading, that the glass ceiling is a necessary thing because this only happens to women. "I do not believe that that would have happened to a man," Bartz explains.

The question on the table during this particular episode of “The Secret Life of CEO's" was why only 5.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies had women at the helm in early 2018. It also looked at what needs to be done to up that percentage, especially when it seems as if, like Bartz says, “We have made no progress… Because old white men rule."

In other words, older men continue to groom younger men as they always have, and women do not get the same support coming up, which makes competing with men all but impossible for the majority of women.

PepsiCo's CEO Indra Nooyi, echoes Bartz's sentiment that, in general, women are simply not considered capable of serving as CEOs, at least not as well as men. “When you become a C.E.O. and you're a woman, you are looked at differently. You know whatever you say, people do — they say things like, 'Well you know, a guy C.E.O. wouldn't have said that.' You are held to a different standard, there's no question about it."

If you're thinking this is just the experience of a few women or that it's little more than a theory, think again. In the U.K., in the early 2000's Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter and her colleague Alex Haslam began researching this phenomenon. What did they conclude? While the set-up may not be entirely intentional, women may be brought in because of what Ryan calls, “the Mommy Effect."

Women may be hired in times of crisis because it is assumed that, as the stereotype goes, will be warm, tactful, and sociable, as well as good communicators, Ryan explains. If so, hiring a female C.E.O. is really about calling in mommy to save the day, making it less of a suicide mission and more of a rescue mission.

Still, it doesn't matter the intent, the result is still the same – women look like they simply cannot compete with men when it comes to being successful CEOs.

The founder of the private-equity firm the Carlyle Group, David Rubenstein, has worked with hundreds of C.E.O.'s over the years, as Carlyle has acquired, turned around, and sold off hundreds of companies in a variety of industries. Rubenstein says there's a secondary issue to consider here as well, an added layer to this cliff, which is even more bad news for women. Rubenstein explains, “Women, when they don't do a good job, probably get more attention than when men don't do a good job. And there are many men who don't do wonderful jobs." Once again, this amplifies the idea of women being incapable even when the failure in question has nothing to do with their capabilities.

Equality for the sexes is not the only reason the Glass Cliff has got to go, it's an economic imperative as well, according to Olga Shurchkov, an economist at Wellesley College, who studies the relationship between gender and economic outcomes. “There are many studies… that suggests that gender diversity in the workplace actually helps firms and economies become more productive over time. So, if you aggregate all of that up, then from the macro perspective, underrepresentation of women in high-level management positions is problematic."

Interestingly, research shows that companies with more women in the c-suite are ultimately more profitable. That paired with the fact that more women are getting more bachelor's degrees than men these days, throwing women off the glass cliff and keeping them out of non-cliff situations, is simply a waste of human business that we can't afford.

So it seems that just when it's finally looking like women have a chance at breaking through the glass ceiling, now they are faced with being pushed off an all too real glass cliff. Companies find they are not doing well, their share prices are declining, so what do they do? They suddenly appoint women to their boards of directors.

The even more dangerous thing is that, at first glance, some might actually believe that women are wrecking companies. Instead, it turns out, wrecked companies were hiring women to captain already sinking ships, literally pushing them off the precipice. It's an extra sad state of affairs considering how things were seemingly looking up for women. Women have a lower unemployment rate than men; more women get bachelor's degrees than men; nearly 40 percent of M.B.A. graduates are female.

So what's the solution? Quotas? Not necessarily as that can lead to unqualified women being hired, Shurchkov says and creating another opportunity for men to say, “See? Women cannot be C.E.O.'s." The real solution is one that could easily be considered the universal solution in terms of creating equality for women. “Policies should really be geared towards making it easier for women to actually gain experience, rise through the ranks of companies, you know, without so much interruption to their careers. It has to be a societal shift in perceptions of what's acceptable and what's going to be productive for the long run." In other words, inclusion. It turns out that's the magic word to make both ceilings and cliffs of glass disappear.


Jenny Block