“It’s no surprise some cynical observers have concluded that the glass ceiling has been replaced by a ‘glass cliff.” So writes Alan Murray, managing Editor of Fortune Magazine, as he notes that in the corporate world, women have faced a ”hyper-Darwinian struggle” to reach the top only to face new challenges. (“Women’s Work” by Alan Murray, Fortune Magazine, Oct. 6, 2014, pg. 10.) It isn’t that women lack the talent to lead. As Murray points out, “Women occupy the majority of spots at elite colleges and universities and get snapped up for prime jobs on graduation.” (ibid, pg 10) Yet their presence shrinks with each step up the corporate ladder so that “only 24 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women — less than 5%.” Interestingly enough, most of that 5% find themselves in charge of corporations that are failing. That’s where the glass cliff comes in.
Some prime examples of women standing at the edge of the glass cliff are IBM’s Ginni Rometty, General Motors’ Mary Barra, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Xerox’s Ursula Burns, all who took over declining companies and are faced with the challenge of turning them around. Safe to say, to accomplish the task these women must be beyond competent. They must be exceptional.
One new star on the horizon is Ann Marie Sastry. She created her own company but entered a field almost exclusively dominated by men. In 2008, this former engineering professor at the University of Michigan garnered over $30 million in start-up money to deliver a solid-state lithium-ion battery with the goal of developing an electric car that could drive 350 miles before needing to be recharged. That goal isn’t hers alone. It’s the holy grail of entire the auto industry and Sastry is closer to success than almost anyone in the field. Not only has she produced prototype batteries with longevity but they are also affordable. Until the remaining kinks are worked out, Sastry isn’t standing still, either. She’s working on small lithium-ion batteries for TV displays and solar cells. (“Will This Batter Change Everything?” by Brian Dumaine, Fortune, October 6, 2014, pg. 33)
If these women in extraordinary leadership roles overcome the challenges most of them inherited, they could succeed in changing the corporate climate — probably forever. I’m betting they will and when they do, the glass cliff they now face will become a bridge of opportunity for other women to cross.