Yahoo's Marissa Mayer: Is she the victim of the 'glass cliff'?

Charging Mayer with turning the failing company around, Yahoo's board might be setting her up for failure, part of a pattern of high-level sexism in corporate America

Marissa Mayer attends a panel discussion Jan. 24, 2011: The newly appointed Yahoo CEO faces a dire situation at the struggling tech company.
(Image credit: Christof Stache/dpa/Corbis)

Marissa Mayer added another crack to the glass ceiling last week when she was named the chief of Yahoo. 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 and Facebook 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.

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