Yahoo CEO victim of 'glass cliff'?

Charging Marissa Mayer with turning the failing company around, the board might be setting her up for failure.

By Jul 23, 2012 12:51PM

Image: CEO (© Photodisc/Getty Images)Marissa Mayer added another crack to the glass ceiling last week when she was named the chief of Yahoo (YHOO). As the first pregnant woman to lead a major company, her appointment was hailed as a huge step toward gender equality in corporate America.

However, others see her rise as part of a depressingly familiar pattern known as the "glass cliff," a term coined by academics a few years ago to describe a phenomenon in which women are more likely to be named the head of a company when it is struggling. The theory holds that successful companies almost always promote men to the corner office, while women are given a shot only when failure is almost guaranteed.

And Yahoo certainly fits the description of a glass-cliff company, having flailed about for years in an attempt to compete with Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) and, furthermore, already having gone through another female CEO in recent years, Carol Bartz, who was similarly viewed as a last-ditch solution and unceremoniously canned in 2011.

Is Mayer the company's next victim of the glass cliff?

Yes. She's being set up to fail: Mayer may be "headed toward a savage plunge off the glass cliff," says Nancy Hass at The Daily Beast. Recent history shows that women are recruited to lead companies almost exclusively in times of crisis, when "the deck is stacked against them." Mayer's case is particularly instructive because she had "topped out" at Google, her former employer, and may have had to resort to a less-successful company to get the position of CEO. If she can't turn Yahoo around, she may have to admit that she was set up to fail.

And it could hurt women everywhere: There's no doubt that Mayer is facing a "dire situation" at Yahoo, says Christopher Shea at The Wall Street Journal. If she fails to reverse its fortunes, the effects could be devastating for women everywhere. In the glass-cliff scenario, "when failure occurs -- and failure is likely from the start, in such situations -- it serves to generate 'evidence' of women's inability to run companies."

No one will blame her if she can't fix Yahoo: Sure, Mayer may have been appointed for sexist reasons, with the Yahoo board reluctant to taint "a prominent man with the stink of failure," says Helaine Olen at Forbes, but Yahoo is "considered such a mess by so many people, it's unlikely Mayer will accrue much -- if any -- blame if she fails to turn things around." In fact, Mayer only stands to gain, since if she can pull off a turnaround, she'll "be a superstar."

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Jul 23, 2012 2:00PM
Very interesting take. I hope she pulls it off.
Jul 24, 2012 12:42AM

Nothing is ever good enough for corporate women is it?  If you don't promote them they say they hit the "glass ceiling".  If you do promote them they say they are being pushed off the "glass cliff".


Poor Marissa Mayer.  She made $300 million at Google and now she's being pushed off the "glass cliff".  Boo hoo!  And when she falls off the "glass cliff" she will get another $70 million.  Oh, those poor women are treated so poorly by corporate America, aren't they?  Boo hoo!

Jul 24, 2012 9:48AM

Something needs to be done with Yahoo is getting almost impossible to do anything on. Freezes and can't return to last page, have to shut down and start over, this includes the mail.

  Wishing her the best and hope she can improve it.

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