The XX Factor

Did CBS Shove Katie Couric Off the Glass Cliff?

Some of Katie Couric’s colleagues at CBS seemed to want her to fail from the beginning: A Katie compatriot told the New York Times , “They never let her learn the secret handshake there.” As Lea Goldman pointed out last week in this space, critics have been predicting Katie Couric’s departure at CBS pretty much since she took the job as evening news anchor five years ago. Many have noted that the CBS Evening News was in third place when Couric was hired as anchor, and in third place the program remained .

It goes without saying that women were only given network anchor jobs after evening news broadcasts became less prestigious . Over a year ago when Diane Sawyer took the helm at ABC World News , Kristin J. Anderson speculated in Psychology Today that Sawyer and Couric were victims of an organizational phenomenon called the glass cliff -studies have shown that women are more likely to be given illustrious positions during times of crisis. Anderson continues:

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. In contrast, 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…a more cynical explanation is that organizational leadership might believe that putting women in high risk positions is a win-win strategy: If a woman succeeds after being placed in a difficult position, then the organization is better off; and if she fails, the woman can be blamed and the prior practice of appointing men can be justified and resurrected. At the same time, the organization can present itself as egalitarian and progressive.

Whether the glass cliff has anything to do with Couric’s contract not being renewed is debatable-that CBS Evening News remains in third place is a fact (though it’s worth noting that according to the Times , Couric lowered the median age of the program’s viewers to a spry 60.6). The latest chatter is that Couric is in talks to host a syndicated talk show, possibly with current Today Show host Matt Lauer. This seems like a wise move for the winning Couric. If she’s learned anything from her time at CBS, it’s better to start fresh, rather than try to bail out a sinking ship.

Photograph of Katie Couric by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.