Corporate America is still very much a boy’s club. Look inside the corner offices of Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll find just 24 women—a paltry 4.8%—sitting at the CEO desk. Those who are tapped are often brought in during times of crisis: Lynn Laverty Elsenhans took the helm of Sunoco after shares had fallen by 52%; Marissa Mayer was hired to save a struggling Yahoo; and most recently, Mary Barra was appointed to the top seat at GM just weeks before its ignition-switch investigation.
Studies have found that those who’ve gotten through glass ceiling are teetering on a "glass cliff" or more likely to be pushed out of their jobs. In their 2005 study "The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions," British researchers Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam discovered that women were more often promoted into leadership when the deck was stacked against them.
"These are often impossible situations where it’s hard to imagine anyone can succeed," Haslam told the Daily Beast in 2012.
And they’re chosen for a reason. Clinical psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe conducted the 2010 study "The Glass Cliff: When and Why Women are Selected as Leaders in Crisis Contexts," and found that women are tapped not because female characteristics are valued, but because the stereotypical male traits, such as being competitive and uncompromising, aren’t perceived as being helpful during a turnaround.
Does the glass cliff set up women for failure? Not necessarily, says Kira Makagon, executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral, a cloud-based phone provider. In fact, she looks at the opportunity as a chance to shine.
"To get to a successful outcome, women can’t consider failure as an option," she says. "Not that many of us are invited into senior executive roles in large companies. We have fewer opportunities, so we have to take the riskier ones. But the more chances we get, the stronger we will become."
After 30 years in the tech industry, Makagon is used to being the only woman in the room. When she was offered the senior position at RingCentral in 2012, she took it.
"I never felt that I was given the challenge because I’m a woman," she says. "Perhaps that was the case, but I feel I’ve been given the support I need. I’ve often felt being a woman gives me an edge. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen the other side of it, but I enjoy the environment."
For more women to be offered the challenge, more women need to get on the CEO track, says Jane Miller, CEO of Rudi’s Organic baking company. "It’s important that women get as many diverse experiences as they possibly can," she says. Miller started her 30-year career in the food industry in marketing. Holding jobs at Frito-Lay, Hostess, PepsiCo, and Heinz, she transitioned into sales and then general management and corporate distribution.
"Women need to stretch their experience from a functional background to a broader base," she says. Once in leadership positions, Makagon and Miller say women need to be proactive to stay there. They offer five things women can do to survive the glass cliff:
To move ahead, Makagon says to leave gender aside and focus on your professional strengths.
"In a predominantly male environment, women will be treated differently," she says. "For example, if there is one chair in the room, it will probably be offered to you. But don’t dwell on the differences. Everyone is judged by their results."
You can’t move up on your own, says Miller, author of Sleep Your Way to the Top: And Other Myths About Business Success (FG Press, 2014). "It’s vital to have others support you," she says. "I made the biggest leap at Frito-Lay because I had a mentor who supported me and let everyone know how amazing I was. That catapulted my career."
Miller says to make sure you’re always networking and building alliances. "You never know who could help you—a boss, peer, or underling," she says. "People wanted to work for me and that’s how I got to senior management."
Don’t try to change who you are to fit into a man’s world, says Makagon; it will be disingenuous. "In the typical old boys’ club, you’re going to hear men discussing sports," she says. "I don’t follow teams, and I can’t participate in that conversation. Instead of changing who I am, I change the subject. I’ll ask, ‘Who’s seen what’s playing at opera house?’ Often, they look at me with that deer-in-the-headlights look, but it changes the landscape and puts you in the center."
While you shouldn’t become someone you’re not, Makagon adds that sometimes it’s important to go with the flow.
"I was invited to a meeting at a cigar bar with the guys," she says. "I didn’t smoke, but I did go along for the experience. Recognize that you’ll probably be the only woman there, and get comfortable being out of your element."
This is where women get derailed, says Miller. "Women are often stereotyped," she says. "We can be accused of being (called) emotional when we may just be passionate, but it’s important not to let your personal style get in the way of being heard."
Listen to the cues of others. While you don’t need to become someone else to succeed, Miller says you need to realize the most senior person in the room dictates the mood, pace, and atmosphere.
"To be successful, you have to understand that person and flex your style accordingly," she says. Lead with the facts and listen to the corporate culture. "Once I changed my interactions with senior management and listened more carefully to their language, I suddenly was being heard."
Makagon says when you climb the corporate ladder, it’s important to reach out to other women along the way.
"Form those connections and seek out a network," she says. "Women’s groups are good because they are natural support systems for each other. To get more women in senior executive positions, we must help each other."