LOGAN -- The small percentage of women and racial minorities who break through corporate America's glass ceiling are likely to find themselves shoved off the glass cliff.
That's the finding of a study published by Utah State University research team Christy Glass, associate professor of sociology, and Alison Cook, associate professor of management at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
The glass ceiling refers to the unseen barriers that keep women and minorities from reaching the top of the corporate ladder, regardless of qualifications. The glass cliff, a newer term, describes the exit point for women and minorities fired from top ranks.
"We tested two theories," Glass said. "The first was that nontraditional leaders, women and minorities, were more likely to be appointed to top leadership positions of companies that were struggling. The second was that, when those nontraditional leaders failed, they would be replaced by traditional leaders, white males."
Glass and Cook looked at 1996-2010 records of Fortune 500 companies. Research bore out the women's hypotheses.
"There have been high-profile cases of women appointed as CEOs, then blamed for their companies' failures within six months or a year," Glass said. "Companies' common response is to think they need a 'corporate savior,' a white male, and give him longer to produce results. Women and racial minorities are set up to fail, and be pushed off the glass cliff. They are put in really precarious leadership positions, then blamed."
A white male may feel freer to decline a job that could hurt his career, Glass said. Women and minority members may see a risky offer as their only chance at a top job.
A previous paper by Glass and Cook focused on NCAA sports and also confirmed that racial minority coaches often are hired by failing sports teams. When teams see no quick improvements, minority coaches are replaced with white coaches. Traditional universities hired a minority coach only 22 percent of the time. Minority coaches hired by a team in crisis were given shorter tenures at their positions -- nearly a year less, on average, than their white counterparts.
Cook said most major businesses now believe in the benefits of diversity.
"On the lower levels, they are working on recruiting and retention, and getting development plays for employees to help them proceed through the ranks," she said.
"But at the top ranks, job descriptions are more ambiguous. They might say, 'We want someone of quality, who is dynamic, and we will know it when we see it.' But when they are looking for quality, to them it looks like the person in the mirror. They are white males, and they understand white males. We are attracted to people like us. It may not even be conscious. They don't know what they are doing."
Cook said companies with women and minorities on their boards are more likely to be open to diversity in top leadership positions. Companies without gender and racial diversity at upper levels will need to make the same effort they do at lower ranks if they hope to change.
"If the awareness is there, they can formalize the recruiting and hiring process, and do something about it," Cook said.
"Sometimes, people just aren't aware. But if they formalize the hiring process and know they will have to justify their decisions, they will make better decisions."