Are Women and Minority Leaders Set Up to Fail?

Diversity at the top is rare, and so is strong support for those leaders once they become CEOs. A close look at your board makeup can help.

We know that associations struggle to promote women and minorities to leadership positions. Some recent research suggests even deeper problems: Women and minorities tend to become CEOs during rough patches, and they receive limited support to clean up the mess they’ve inherited.

In a series of papers, Utah State University professors Alison Cook and Christy Glass have been exploring the “glass cliff”—the theory that members of underrepresented groups tend to be put into leadership roles during times of crisis and decline. (It’s not a subject that’s talked about much as the glass ceiling, though we’re culturally attuned enough to the glass-cliff concept to joke about it.) Cook and Glass’ research suggests this tendency has serious consequences for diversity efforts.

If you have a greater number or influential members on a board that are women or minorities, you are more likely to have a woman or minority in the CEO position.

In one paper, “Above the Glass Ceiling: When Are Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities Promoted to CEO?” (published online this month by Strategic Management Journal), the two studied CEO transitions at Fortune 500 companies between 1996 and 2010. They found that while  the length of CEO tenure remains stable regardless of who’s in charge, women and minorities are disproportionately promoted to the corner office during periods of financial struggle and crisis. Moreover, those leaders tend to be replaced by traditional white male CEOs once they leave—a phenomenon they dub the “savior effect.” (They discovered a similar dynamic among Division I college basketball coaches as well.)

What’s going on here? In large part the problem has to do with exclusionary networks. The same group of decisionmakers who tend to resist putting underrepresented groups in charge in the first place fail to integrate them into their networks once they’re in charge, therefore depriving them of a support system. As Cook and Glass write:

In addition to negative stereotypes and performance pressures, tokens and solos are less likely to benefit from social and professional networks and to receive organizational support, information, and assistance from peers and subordinates. As a result, occupational minorities tend to be more cautious and frugal with organizational resources, and often lack control of critical organizational resources, including financial assets. These pressures and resource deficiencies in turn impact performance and job satisfaction.

Cook elaborated on this to me in an email: “When you are one of very few in your position or level, you are highly visible throughout the organization and highly scrutinized. And without tight connections from other top people (who may just not be as comfortable with you), you are not likely to receive the same level of support they may offer someone else.”

Cook and Glass’ research doesn’t address how glass cliffs and savior effects play out in associations or the larger nonprofit space. But it strikes me that associations have a valuable role to play in shaping the culture and structure of leadership networks for their industries. They have the opportunity to be the inclusionary networks that support women and minority leaders as they climb the ladder—and particularly when they get to the last rung.

And what about leadership among the association staffs themselves? Cook and Glass’ research suggests that association boards—which we know have diversity challenges—may be a good place build a diverse leadership pipeline and improve the support system. She and Glass are working on a study about board makeup that suggests diversity in the boardroom radiates outward. “If you have a greater number or influential members on a board that are women or minorities, you are more likely to have a woman or minority in the CEO position,” Cook says. “Whether these individuals are actively promoting diversity or not doesn’t matter. They, just by who they are with regard to gender and race, have expanded the network of likely candidates for those top positions.”

She adds: “Many of the stereotypes or norms associated with gender or race may not be activated given the presence of these members on the board. Once individuals start knowing and better understanding people different from themselves, they soon realize there are actually quite a lot of similarities and not just differences.”

What are you doing at your association to support diverse leadership among your staff and your industry? Let us know in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!