Shattering the Glass Cliff: Lesbians in Executive Roles

by Angela Kolter
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 24, 2013

In the last half century, the percentage of women in managerial positions in U.S. companies, according to US Census Bureau statistics, has increased more than 36 percent. But while female executives continue to shatter the "glass ceiling," they may still be at risk of the "glass cliff."

A term coined by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of University of Exeter, the "glass cliff" describes the phenomenon by which women are poised in executive leadership to fail. Ryan and Haslam's research implicates organizations in them claim that "women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions" already "associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure."

Additionally, "LGBT women are more likely than men to experience discrimination because of the double jeopardy of gender as well as sexual orientation (74 percent of lesbians compared with 51 percent of gay men)," according to research conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation in "The Power of 'Out' 2.0: LGBT in the Workplace."

As gay women increasingly power into executive roles, how do they poise themselves successfully on the precipice of institutional double jeopardy to create supportive and sustainable networks in the workplace?

Create Transparency

In her study "From Glass Ceiling to Glass Cliff: Women in Senior Executive Service," author Meghna Sabharwal states that women find a better balance when they "have influence over policymaking decisions, perceive empowerment, and experience organizational equities."

For lesbian executives, defying glass barriers requires building solid relationships. If women are held to a different standard, then a transparent, reciprocal support base allows lesbian executives to act as a catalyst for transformation.

To expand network opportunities and to increase overall job satisfaction, "The Power of ’Out’ 2.0." suggests "joining internal employee resource groups" to "mingle with senior leaders [one] would otherwise never meet and leverage those relationships."

Senior executives such as Chris Crespo, director in the Americas Inclusiveness Center of Excellence at Ernst & Young LLP since 2006, nurture these internal networks to deny the gravitational pull of the glass cliff.

"We have to build inclusive leadership in every single person, to push to create relationships that engender trust," stated Crespo.

By seeking transparency in their internal relationships, gay women can transform the "journey" of a corporate culture. As co-founder of the Beyond Network, EY’s affinity group for LGBT and Allies established in 2003, Crespo believes that groups such as the BN act as a "conduit" to translate information from employees to senior management and conversely to educate LGBT employees about equitable policies already in place.

"We were doing so much, but our employees didn’t know," said Crespo. To translate policy into active protection, the conversation must take place to "educate senior management on solutions and make programs more equitable."

To Build Leverage, Be Authentic

"To reach out and solve problems," women have to "make it real," said Crespo.

To build leverage, lesbian executives have to talk, and talk openly. If coming out is an "asset to be leveraged," as the authors of "The Power of ’Out’ Study 2.0" assert, then authenticity between senior leadership and gay women rising through the ranks creates a shield against traditional barriers.

"We have to be authentic to make things better," said Crespo. "We think we only have to share our strengths, but we must share our challenges and vulnerabilities to outweigh the bad experiences with the good." This authenticity can impact the corporate culture with a viral expediency by which real stories translate into more meaningful and purposeful policies.

According to Crespo, we learn better from "authentic stories of struggle from empathetic sponsors who have traveled the road before us," creating a safe space for LGBT employees to gain visibility within their own circle while garnering the attention of senior management.

Seek "Relationship Capital"

If sponsorship and a strong ally network can act as a "game changer" as "The Power of ’Out’ 2.0" suggests, lesbian leaders must be willing to seek the support of men and straight allies.

Karen Sumberg, Executive Vice President at the Center for Talent Innovation and coauthor of "The Power of ’Out’ 2.0," describes women as uniquely searching to "create that sense of community which is especially critical to lesbians, as a small population, to see what’s possible" in a healthy organization. Due to the limited nature of lesbian executorships, successful women have to seek "relationship capital" elsewhere.

Since "there are simply not enough LGBT women in executive leadership, we need men involved in creating sponsorships that heal and engender change. We can’t have women just focused on themselves," added Crespo.

According the Catalyst.org’s "Women CEO’s of the Fortune 1000," women currently only occupy "4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions," so women have to "branch out to use their power and experience in a way that can build change," said Sumberg.

Seed the Change with Vocal, Out Allies

Todd Sears, coauthor of "The Power of ’Out’ 2.0" and founder of Out on the Street, the lead sponsor for the study, recognizes the necessity for vocal allies.

"For companies to have senior LGBT people out anywhere in the corporate structure, they first have to have visible straight allies to make it safe," but visibility is insufficient, said Sears.

"Straight allies have to come out. It’s not enough to have a corporate policy that’s inclusive if the senior leadership doesn’t vocally and visibly show support," he added.

Sears likewise challenges LGBT leaders to "support their allies in a reciprocal relationship" so they know what is expected of them. If straight allies know what to do, they can impact policies.

"Change is going to come from the attitudes at the senior level, and that becomes crucially important for senior lesbian executives to start seeding that change with their peers and superiors," said Sumberg.

The resulting and inexorable momentum can make the glass cliff merely a good view.


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