And just like that, Elon Musk’s tenure as Twitter CEO is ending—and a highly qualified woman executive is coming in to replace him. But since it has become an increasingly glitchy and alt-right-friendly platform, the reins of Twitter may well be more of a white-elephant situation than a generous gift to Linda Yaccarino, the ad chief joining from NBCUniversal. Even so, it’s not remotely the first brush with the dreaded “glass cliff” for a female executive.
The phenomenon of the “glass cliff” is when a woman or someone from a marginalized group inherits a position of power during a crisis or period of downturn. While it’s a promotion in theory, the odds are already stacked against them and they’re not likely to thrive in said difficult situation.
“It’s more likely for women to be given leadership opportunities when the situation is risky and imperiled than when the situation is stable,” Jo-Ellen Pozner, assistant professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, tells Fortune.
“This is a classic glass cliff situation, in which a failing company hires a woman to clean up messes made by arrogant men,” tweeted influential digital media advisor Heidi N. Moore. “Then she becomes the scapegoat because it’s impossible to clean up.”
What a year it was
After roughly a year of heading Twitter, Musk has had his fun: carrying a sink into the San Francisco headquarters, un-verifying Twitter celebs and news platforms (often before immediately re-verifying them), and sacking rounds of employees—far more than half of Twitter’s former headcount. But since Musk bid $54.20 per share for Twitter just over a year ago, it has become clear why he needs a new CEO so badly.
Artificial intelligence has taken the world by storm, especially OpenAI (which Musk cofounded) and its ChatGPT product, as Twitter has declined in value by so much that Musk is admitting he overpaid by more than $20 billion. Furthermore, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO has restive shareholders, with the market wiping out $13 billion from his fortune a few weeks ago, on the day after disappointing earnings from the carmaker and a literal explosion from the rocket maker.
Tweeting that he will continue to focus on “product design & new technology,” Musk claims that Yaccarino’s work will be centered around mostly business operations. Noting how Musk is keeping himself on in a digital capacity, Moore predicts a Looney Tunes type of scenario where the two end up chasing each other around. Pozner said she thinks there’s little any executive could do to reassure advertisers that Twitter is a safe space for their brands right now. “I just don’t see how his continued involvement in the organization in any meaningful way on a day-to-day basis is going to allow any new CEO the space to thrive,” she notes. Media analyst Brian Wieser was more cutting, telling the FT that Yaccarino is in a “very high beta situation.”
A long way down
A play on the infamous glass ceiling that limits women’s advancement in the workplace, the glass cliff represents a door of opportunity being left a crack open, but with a tightrope just beyond it and a long potential fall. Before Bed Bath & Beyond was shuttered, Sue Gove was appointed to lead the struggling company, and in 2019, Heyward Donigan took the helm at Rite Aid in a year when it had lost half its market cap. Fortune’s L’Oreal Thompson Payton has described a particularly treacherous cliff for Black women who are often offered untenable leadership roles, from Refinery29 to Simon & Schuster.
In politics, women are more likely to be put forward as candidates in “very dangerous, close races,” while men usually run for safe seats, Pozner said. Or consider the longtime Google executive Marissa Mayer taking over at Yahoo when it was facing a steep uphill climb. Mayer lasted in the job for about five years until affecting a $4.8 billion merger with Verizon (at a fraction of its former value), and recently admitted that she should have acquired Netflix for $4 billion instead of Tumblr for $1.1 billion. “It’s easy then to blame women when things don’t go well and to make attributions based on gender,” Pozner says, “even though the position that those women are put in, is riskier, independent of them, or anything that they do or say.”
Pozner agreed that Twitter feels like a glass cliff situation. “Musk has kind of created a very hectic, chaotic situation at Twitter,” Pozner says, adding that he’s putting the blame of Twitter’s failures on advertisers dropping out rather than acknowledging how his actions (eg, gutting content moderation, his own questionable retweets) have created this situation of uncertainty.
Of course, not every woman that ascends to the top must trade off power for a glass cliff situation. For instance, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser came to power with a little bit of a turnaround effort on her hands, but she’s still ensconced at one of Wall Street’s mightiest banks. And to be fair, it’s not a given that Yaccarino is doomed. But the fact that she has to play pick-up in the first place is indicative of how many women leaders have little room for error.
There’s little research that explains why executives turn to mostly women to pick up the slack times of crisis, but Pozner hypothesizes that it’s in part because appointing a woman looks good to external stakeholders, and also there’s an idea that women appear to be “more sensitive, more level-headed.”
But there’s of course a darker side to it: “The sense that if things go wrong, ‘Oh well, the woman or the underrepresented minority is going to take the blame. And so the rest of us are safe.’ It doesn’t impugn a whole group, or it doesn’t impugn the group that’s already in power if something goes south.” It’s also easier to scapegoat a person who is new and not part of the social network, she adds. Women might still take the job, given it might be the only opportunity for a leadership role that comes their way. After all, progress at the top level is still going at an ant’s pace, as this year women CEOs ran 10% of Fortune 500 companies—and that was a historic first, up from years of women leaders being stuck on 8%.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter that this is a woman, nobody is going to be able to make this work,” says Pozner, “It’s convenient for the patriarchy that it’s a woman. But it’s not going to fail to work because she’s a woman, it’s going to fail to work and she’s a woman.”