Black Women in Leadership Find Themselves on a ‘Glass Cliff’
Kyra Kyles recalls the time early in her career when an abrupt staffing change at her communications job caused managers to look to her to fill a leadership role.
Kyles said she knew she could handle the promotion. In fact, Kyles had already been performing some of the job responsibilities without the title and pay. Still, she felt insulted the small agency had not considered her for the role before crisis struck. And as a Black woman, the pressure to perform the job without error was high, she said.
“They didn’t expect us to miss a step even though there was a clear staff interruption,” said Kyles, who is now CEO at YR Media. “In that moment I felt more nervous because I thought that as a Black woman if I’m not able to knock this out of the park I don’t want it to be a situation where they don’t give another woman of color a chance.”
Kyles’ experience isn’t unique. Experts and advocates for women of color say Black women are often hired or promoted to leadership roles at companies at times of crisis with the expectation being that they will fix the issues. The task, experts say, can be so daunting that it quickly leads to burnout or even failure.
The phenomenon has been coined by researchers as the “glass cliff.” It’s essentially the opposite of the “glass ceiling”– the term that describes the barriers minorities face to advance in the workplace. Research shows that women and people of color are more likely to be appointed to poorly performing companies than White males.
Many Black women found themselves on the “glass cliff” in 2020 when companies and public agencies scrambled to diversify their staffs and launch diversity and inclusion initiatives as the nation faced a reckoning on racism following George Floyd’s death.
Among them were Dana Canedy who became the first Black woman to head a major publisher when she was hired at Simon & Schuster; and Simone Oliver was appointed global editor-in-chief of Refinery29 after the former top editor stepped down amid allegations of racial discrimination at the publication. Both Canedy and Oliver have since stepped down from those jobs. Oliver is now the senior vice president of digital for BET. In January 2021, Yogananda Pittman became the first Black person and first woman to head the Capitol Police which was under fire for being ill prepared to handle the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.
And last month, MSNBC parted ways with popular weekend anchor Tiffany Cross. Her show “The Cross Connection” had launched in late 2020, at the height of the racial reckoning, centering issues impacting the Black community.
“Fresh off the heels of a ‘racial reckoning,’ as so many have called it, we see that with progress, there is always backlash,” Cross wrote in a statement after her show was canceled. “Now is not the time to retreat to politics or business as usual. It is my hope that the last two years at MSNBC have been disruptive and transformative, changing how politics are discussed and making policy more digestible.”