Are Women CEOs Just Scapegoats?

by Katie Fustich

Anyone with a brain would agree that the rise of women like Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!) and Meg Whitman (Hewlett-Packard) to the coveted role of CEO should be cause for celebration. For the first time in history, women are in charge of some of the most important change-making companies out there. But Women’s E-News is suggesting that we “hold the cheers.” As it turns out, a woman at the top may be nothing more than a scapegoat for a  faltering company. After all, the aforementioned Mayer and Whitman were both appointed to their current CEO positions while their respective companies were on the brink of disaster. Onlookers suggest these women are perched on a “glass cliff”– in other words, they’ve been set in a position of power that has been set up for utter failure.

Such a pattern raises the question: Why would a company make such a change in preparation for a downfall? Psychology professor Kristin J. Anderson offers her theory in Psychology Today: “One possible reason for putting women in positions with greater risk of failure is that women may be seen as more expendable and better scapegoats. If you believe that men are natural leaders, if a company fails under a man’s leadership, you would look for explanations for the failure other than the man’s gender.”


Unfortunately, this probably doesn’t come as much of a shock. Recession or not, the general perception of women in business is one of uncertainty. Simply type Marissa Mayer’s name into Google (or Yahoo! would probably be more appropriate…) and you will be met with news results discussing her “shaky” choices and how she is “grappling” with her new role. If she were to falter, it would merely be a matter of saying “we saw it coming all along.” Anderson continues: “If you believe that women don’t really belong in positions of authority, and if a company fails under a woman’s leadership, you might point to the leader’s gender as the explanation.”

Zoe Cruz, co-president of Morgan Stanley, was perhaps the most evident scapegoat of them all. In 2007, Cruz was forced out of her role after the company faced major losses. Though she had, in fact, warned that the company should pull out of risky investments, her suggestion was not heeded. As Women’s E-News notes, though she was forced to resign, “The men around her…didn’t pay the price.” 

A woman will always have to work twice as hard to achieve status and respect in the business world. And when it comes time for that promotion, chances are it isn’t a woman making that decision. Wall Street is still a boys club where women can easily end up as a pawn amidst some greater scheme. Yet, I choose to remain hopeful in thinking that it’s only a matter of time before the Mad Men days of yore are flushed out of the business world’s system and a “glass cliff” will merely be the name of an 80s club drug and not the way to reference a woman’s significant career.


Thanks to Women’s E-News.

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