Condolences, You’re Hired!

For GM’s Mary Barra and other female executives, a big promotion can feel like a kiss of death.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra.
Just two weeks into the job as General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra got handed a recall mess.

Photo by Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

General Motors is a mess. Still coming back from its bankruptcy, the automaker has been rocked by the recall of 1.6 million cars made between 2003 and 2007 due to faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths. Worse, the company knew about the defects as early as 2001.

This storm started raining down on CEO Mary Barra, the first woman to run a global car company, just two weeks into her tenure. It seems like pretty bad luck to be hit with such an utter disaster when you’ve only had two weeks as the boss. As Jena McGregor notes at the Washington Post, “few CEOs have faced such major internally induced crises as the one Barra currently confronts at GM.”

But maybe it’s not bad luck. Maybe Barra’s plight simply follows a script that has played out for many other women. Evidence suggests that women are more likely to get promoted into leadership during particularly dicey times; then, when fortunes go south, the men who helped them get there scatter and the women are left holding the bag. This phenomenon is what is known as the glass cliff: women promoted into leadership in times of crisis. “When things are going great, it’s usually men who occupy these roles,” says Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter’s School of Psychology.

Ryan and her University of Exeter colleague Alex Haslam coined the phrase in their 2005 paper “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions.” In an email to Slate, Ryan writes that Barra’s case is “a very good example of a glass cliff situation.” Haslam agrees, pointing out “that women tend to get more than their fair share of tricky leadership positions (as this certainly was) and that men get more than their fair share of cushy leadership positions (as this certainly wasn’t).”

Women end up on the glass cliff for a number of reasons, as Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe wrote in their 2010 paper “The Glass Cliff: When and Why Women Are Selected as Leaders in Crisis Contexts.” If business is going well, Bruckmüller and Branscombe found, there’s no perceived need for a shake-up, and the status quo—in which men are usually the majority of leadership—is likely to continue. When a company hits a rough patch, there may be an inclination to try something new. Women are also sometimes seen to have leadership qualities that are better suited to cleaning up messes, Bruckmüller and Branscombe wrote.

It may also be that “men tend to get better access to higher quality information,” Haslam says. Ryan adds, “This lack of information can also be linked to women often not having networks that are as strong (or as powerful) as those of their male colleagues.”

What Barra is experiencing is part of a trend unearthed by many researchers. In a real world study, Ryan and Haslam found that FTSE 100 companies who appointed women to their boards were “more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men.” Another study, from University College Cork business professors Mark Mulcahy and Carol Linehan, found that companies are the most likely to put women on their boards after an initial loss that signaled underperformance. Accounting for other variables that could affect the selection process, they still found a “statistically significant” relationship between losses and choosing women over men. And in a research environment, studies conducted by Ryan and Haslam on management school graduates, high school students, and business leaders found that they are all more likely to select a female leader for a hypothetical organization when performance is declining.

Of course, you could interpret these trends to mean that people look to women over men in times of trouble, which is a vote of confidence in women’s abilities. But the net effects of glass-cliff syndrome are usually far from triumphant. Finance made itself a prime example of the glass cliff during the 2008–09 crisis. Erin Callan became chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers in December 2007 and resigned in June 2008, which meant that playing defense and recouping from failure made up her entire yearlong experience; Lehman declared bankruptcy in September 2008. By November 2007, Zoe Cruz had become “one of the most powerful and highest-paid women—people—in finance” (per New York magazine) and was on the verge of being named the next chief executive of Morgan Stanley when the mortgage market began to tank.

Other female chief executives have been handed tough jobs like the one confronting Barra. Lynn Laverty Elsenhans became the first female CEO of oil company Sunoco after shares had fallen by 52 percent (after which shares climbed back up). Anne M. Mulcahy became the first female CEO of Xerox when it was $17 billion in debt and being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (she’s now credited with leading a turnaround). It crops up outside of the business world, too: Katie Couric was hired as an anchor for CBS Evening News when its ratings were already third place, and Diane Sawyer was brought on at ABC World News after evening news programs had already lost more than half of their audience. (As one of Couric’s colleague told the New York Times in 2011, “They never let her learn the secret handshake there.”)

Women in these sorts of precarious positions aren’t just in an awkward spot for the duration of that particular gig. That gig can also torpedo the rest of their careers, “because directors of unsuccessful companies are subsequently less likely to be appointed to other leadership positions,” as Bruckmüller and Branscombe wrote.

Worse, they often look a lot like scapegoats. Callan was one of just four former Lehman executives chastised in a 2,200-page bankruptcy court report. Overall, female executives in all sectors were three times as likely to lose their jobs in the recession.

We don’t know yet how the recall at GM will impact Barra’s future career, but she has already had to make a public apology. Ryan points out that while “failure is by no means inevitable” for a woman standing on the glass cliff, her research indicates that Barra may have to work harder to make the same progress as a man promoted into an easier role. And she may only pave the way for a man to take over once things are good again. “There is some emerging evidence that once women have cleaned up the mess they inherited, they get quietly moved to one side to make place for a man (again),” Haslam adds.

It’s entirely possible that GM promoted Barra because of her four decades’ worth of experience with the company and didn’t deliberately choose for a woman to become the public face of a company dealing with a massive recall. Biases against women in leadership often aren’t conscious. None of the research subjects putting women on glass cliffs were found to be operating from a place of blatant sexism. But time and again, these choices have the same impact: Women make advances, only to find themselves in near-impossible predicaments with narrow chances of success.