Woolies & Qantas Both Have Their First Female CEOs, But Will They Be Kicked Off The Glass Cliff?

Everyone who has ever either watched Barbie or existed in this patriarchal world is familiar with the reality of the “glass ceiling”. However in recent history the concept of the “glass cliff” has shown itself to be equally real, and equally brutal. But what exactly is it?

Before we dive into recent feminist theory, how about we take a look at some recent Australian corporate history first?

This week the CEO of Woolworths Brad Banducci announced his retirement after a trainwreck Four Corners interview. Under Banducci’s leadership Woolworths has led itself into one of the most unpopular periods the brand has ever experienced.

In September he will replaced by the company’s first ever female CEO, Amanda Bardwell.

Alan Joyce was the CEO of Qantas for 15 years. Last year when the company found itself at the centre of inquiries, class action lawsuits, and general hatred from the public it was announced that Joyce would be replaced by Vanessa Hudson, Qantas’ first female CEO.

Qantas’ new CEO Vanessa Hudson. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

And when last year the Reserve Bank Of Australia (RBA) found that the public were furious at the constant interest rate hikes, and RBA Governor Philip Lowe of seven years was being labelled as “out of touch“, he was replaced with the first female RBA Governor Michele Bullock.

Now you may be thinking that this is great. Look at all these women slaying and becoming the leaders of their companies. We love a SHE.E.O!

Except for one thing: All these companies that are making their feminist breakthroughs appear to be in turmoil.

What is the glass cliff?

If a glass ceiling is an unseen barrier that women/femme presenting people have to push up against and break in a patriarchal society, the glass cliff is what happens when you flip it upside down.

Instead of breaking her way up, the glass cliff is the term used when a woman destroys the invisible barrier on her way down after being pushed off the cliff of corporate success.

The concept of the glass cliff was first coined by Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Australian National University Dr Michelle Ryan in 2005, along with Alexander Haslam, in their book The Glass Cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions.

It aims to describe the phenomena where women are granted positions of high power, but only to act as a scapegoat for the company putting her there.

@jasgarnsworthy Have you heard of the ‘glass cliff’ theory? It’s when women are promoted right when a company (or country!) is on the brink of total failure. The latest Twitter news is the perfect example of this. #feminist #femalefounder #business ♬ original sound – Jasmine Garnsworthy

It’s important to note that the women being promoted to these precarious high-positions are by no means at all undeserving.

Think of it as a distraction. In order to escape negative PR, an organisation may promote a woman to a leadership position and squeeze some good press out instead for how “progressive” they are for putting a woman in charge.

Which itself as an action reeks of misogyny.

Ryan herself identified that the situation for Woolworths’ first female CEO is a textbook definition of the glass cliff.

“When we talk about the glass cliff we talk about the precarity that female leaders often find in their appointments, and with Woolworths appointing their first ever female CEO amid multiple inquiries about competition, and after Mr Banducci had a difficult interview on Four Corners, this position feels like it may indeed be precarious,” Ryan said, per news.com.au.

The anatomy of a fall from a glass cliff

One of the many dangers of the glass cliff is that though more women are pushed into high positions, due to the unstable nature of the organisation that woman now finds herself the leader of, she will be blamed for all its faults.

Even if all the problems she’s trying to fix are the fault of the hopeless bloke before her.

Just as Vanessa Hudson now has to do in trying to fix up the tarnished reputation of Qantas, as Michele Bullock is attempting to do for the RBA, and Amanda Bardwell will have to do for Woolworths.

It happens in the political world too. Julia Gillard‘s rise to become Australia’s first female Prime Minister can be attributed to (in parts) as a glass cliff situation. She became the ALP’s scapegoat for negatively viewed policies, and eventually she too was cast off the side of the cliff once her party was done with her.

“Scrutiny during a crisis is high, and our research has shown that women are often blamed for a crisis that was set in train long before they took the helm,” Professor Ryan stated, as per news.com.au.

Critics of the glass cliff and these women would argue that these women are still at fault for the direction their company is in, because they wouldn’t have been promoted to the leadership position without pushing the bottom line.

Yet while it may be true (for example) that anything Brad Banducci was doing as CEO of Woolworths presumably would have been approved by his female successor who sat on Woolworths’ board, that doesn’t make the glass cliff less real.

So as we observe more and more women girlboss their way to the top, though they undoubtedly will have earned their place in these positions, there may be a darker force that needs to be stopped before we can celebrate defeating the final boss of the patriarchy.