Tony Hayward is reported to be out as the CEO of BP, with a sweet 600,000-pound pension waiting for him (that's $928K) as a "reward" for not only presiding over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but performing like a whiny schoolboy in the weeks and months since. "I want my life back"? Congratulations, you've got it.
If history is any guide, BP may well choose a woman to replace him. During the recent financial crisis and recession, women emerged as the go-to turnaround leadership candidates for institutions and nations in trouble. Carol Bartz as CEO of the embattled Yahoo. Mary Schapiro as head of the beleaguered SEC. Elin Sigfusdottir and Birna Einarsdottir, appointed to run two (out of three) of Iceland's nationalized banks (New Landsbanki and New Glitni), after the collapse of the country's financial system and Johanna Sigurdardottir as the nation's interim prime minister—both the first-ever female head of state in Iceland and the first openly gay head of state anywhere. Elizabeth Warren, currently the leading candidate to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and try to make sense of the hash of consumer financial protections. Even at BP itself, before Cynthia Warner left to head biofuels startup Sapphire Energy, she was made the head of a new health, safety, and security group in BP's refining sector in response to the 2005 Texas City disaster (unfortunately, she apparently failed to have a lasting impact on the oil company with the worst safety and environmental record in the Big Six).
Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, two British social psychologists, say these kind of barbed opportunities are all too commonly offered to women. They call this phenomenon "the glass cliff."
In 2008, the S&P 500 fell 38.5%, its worst year since 1937. But the average large company run by a woman was down four points more—42.7%. Women's average tenure as CEOs tends to be lower and stock performance worse.
Ryan and Haslam's studies have found the reason behind this: It's not that women are categorically worse leaders, but that they are disproportionately hired as CEOs only at firms that have been struggling for years. High-flying companies almost never appointed women to top positions. Their controlled experiments confirm that professionals in the business, legal, and academic worlds are far more likely to choose a woman for a leadership role when the enterprise's chances are dicey.
The glass cliff is a dangerous corollary to the glass ceiling. For many complex reasons, women—along with other outsiders like minorities—tend to be handed the chance to lead only when an enterprise is already on a downward spiral. If BP decides to go this way, you heard it here first.
Additional reporting by Danielle Sacks.
[Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images]