ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly fired last week, made her first public comments today. She did so in an address to the 2014 graduating class of Wake Forest University. And she told them: Like you, I'm a little scared but also excited.
JILL ABRAMSON: What's next for me? I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you.
SIEGEL: Jill Abramson spoke amid swirling theories about why she was fired. Was it her brusque management style, an alleged lie to her bosses, or was it a case of gender bias? Well, we will not answer those questions today.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
But one thing is clear: the unceremonious end to Abramson's reign as The Times first female executive editor has set off a national discussion about gender bias in the workplace. And in that discussion you may have heard these two words: glass cliff. It's the idea that women, also minorities, are appointed to top positions that are not easy to hold on to.
To talk more about the theory of the glass cliff and to explore if there's real evidence to support the theory, we've called in NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. And he joins us in the studio now. Shankar, welcome.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So the glass cliff, where does the term come from? What does it mean?
VEDANTAM: Well, it's a term that grew out of a term it's going to be much more familiar to our listeners that that term is the glass ceiling. We've known for a long time that women and minorities find it hard to break into the top ranks of organizations because of subtle barriers, and that's known as the glass ceiling. The question is what happens to these employees when they do, indeed, reach the top spot.
I spoke with Christy Glass. She's a sociologist at Utah State University.
CORNISH: And that's her real last name?
VEDANTAM: It's a real last name. And I didn't pick her because her last name was Glass. Here's how she explained it to me.
CHRISTY GLASS UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: If the glass ceiling means that there are invisible barriers that limit the mobility of women and minorities, the glass cliff suggests that when women and minorities are promoted they tend to be promoted to struggle at firms or firms in crisis. In other words, they're pushed off the glass cliff.
CORNISH: So let's talk about evidence and research here. What's out there to back this up?
VEDANTAM: Well, the evidence, I would say has been mixed so far, Audie. And part of the problem is that the numbers we're talking about are very small. So if you look at the number of female New York Times editors, you have a sample size of one. And in scientific terms a sample size of one is an anecdote, it's not data.
Christy Glass and her colleague, Alison Cook, recently decided to test for evidence of the glass cliff in two domains, where the numbers are large enough to actually have data. Now, these are very different domains: One is sports and one is business; the NCAA men's basketball teams and Fortune 500 companies. If the theory of the glass cliff is true, it means that people of color would be more likely promoted to coach when their teams were struggling. And women would be more likely promoted to CEO when their companies were struggling.
Here's Christy Glass again.
PROFESSOR: We found in both these contexts, strong and significant evidence of the glass cliff. In the NCAA, minority coaches are much more likely to be promoted to losing teams. And in the Fortune 500, women and minorities are much more likely to be promoted to CEO in firms that are struggling in terms of performance.
CORNISH: Why is this happening though? I mean advocates are arguing that companies are in effect setting up women and minorities to fail.
VEDANTAM: Well, that is a possibility, Audie. But at the same time, it's hard to imagine that owners of teams and boards of directors at companies actively want their teams and organizations to fail. There might be more innocuous explanations for the phenomenon. One possibility is that these risky jobs are, indeed, being offered to white men as well. But the white men feel secure in turning down these positions because they feel there will be other opportunities down the road.
Because women and minorities tend not to get into these top spots, when an opportunity comes up a person could feel this is the only chance I'm going to get.
There's another explanation, which is that when a company is in trouble they are often looking for somebody who can soothe employees and bring back morale. And female managers are stereotyped sometimes as having a gentler touch, as being more emotionally aware. So it could be that companies look for female managers in times of crisis, because they're trying to send a signal: Look, we're trying to calm things down.
There's a third explanation, which is the company is trying to send a signal to its investors, to its fans that it's actually trying to turn the ship around; it's trying to go in a different direction. One way to do that is to try and find a nontraditional leader. So it could be that firms and teams are making these decisions for innocuous or well-intentioned reasons.
But the consequence is that you might be putting women and minorities in situations where they are more likely to fail. And, of course, when you do that they're more likely actually to fail. And then, of course, it opens them up to the criticism that says: Look, we tried the woman and she failed.
CORNISH: Shankar, thanks so much for explaining it.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can also follow this program @npratc, and me @npraudie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.