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‘Very rarely is it as good as it seems’: Black women in leadership are finding themselves on the ‘glass cliff’

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. (CNN)


(CNN) — 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.”

(Cross’ situation is not considered the “glass cliff,” but Black women CNN spoke to cited her firing as an example of the complex situations some Black women face at work. Her former boss, MSNBC network president Rashida Jones, is also Black.)

Barriers to success

Jennifer Farmer, author of the “First & Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life,” said in most cases there is a trade off to a Black woman being appointed to a high-profile leadership role. Black women may receive their desired salary, she said, but they are often taking on a work load is that is not sustainable. She said if Black women are going to take on these leadership roles, they should be able to execute their vision, hire their team and be fully supported by the company.

“Whenever I see a Black women who has cleared barriers, there is always a story there,” Farmer said. “There’s always something that she is navigating, that she is negotiating with. Very rarely is it as good as it seems.”

And Farmer speaks from personal experience when she talks about those barriers.

Farmer said throughout her career she has either been told she was too assertive or placed in situations that felt impossible. When she was on maternity leave from her public relations role at an advocacy group in 2017, the company called her to deal with a crisis facing leadership. Managers rushed her to complete the assignment. “Physically I wasn’t even in a place to work,” Farmer said.

When she officially returned to work from maternity leave, Farmer still did not feel truly valued by the company. She was reprimanded after an outgoing employee left her a bad review.

She said she asked herself, “What am I doing wrong? How do I become a person who fits within this organization?”

After leaving the company in 2019 and learning that other Black women had faced similar challenges, Farmer wrote her book.

A constant tug-of-war

Researchers say Black women disproportionately face these challenges in the workplace.

According to a report published by Lean In — an organization that advocates for equitable workplaces for women — Black women face greater barriers to advancement in the workplace than women of other races. Black women are also more likely to face microaggressions and have their colleagues question their abilities and judgment, the report says.

Rachel Thomas, CEO of Lean In, said despite the racial reckoning of 2020, many companies still have not fully addressed gender and racial bias in the workplace.

Earlier this year, CNN reported a new requirement that went into effect for all Nasdaq-listed companies to fill out a board diversity matrix that includes the total number of company board members and how those board members self-identify regarding gender, race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ status. Starting in August 2023, companies trading on the exchange must have at least two diverse board members or explain why they are not meeting the diversity requirement.

Thomas said although employers are making strides toward diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, they haven’t ensured all employees are properly trained on allyship and anti-racism.

As a result, women of color are taking on demanding roles — many of them in newly created DEI roles — without the budget, resources or support from senior leadership to be successful, Thomas said.

“It’s driving burnout and leaving women feeling frustrated,” Thomas said. “They are being asking to do more and they are stepping up to do more and they are not fully being supported to do that work and that work is often going unrecognized and unrewarded.”

With undesirable working conditions, some women of color are choosing to leave their jobs all together. Others are being terminated for not meeting expectations.

Lean In found that women leaders of all races left their jobs at higher rates than men between 2017 and 2021. Among their reasons for quitting were more barriers to advancement, being overworked without receiving the credit, and wanting more flexibility, the Lean In report found.

Ekaette Kern, a Black woman, said she parted ways with a job in the communications industry earlier this year. Kern said the company had promoted her to her dream job as an executive partner but she found it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. She had hoped recruit a diverse team and put new processes in place. Instead, she faced pushback from her managers at every turn. Kern said they questioned her hiring decisions and told her that her expectations for her team were too high.

“It was a constant tug of war with trying to balance doing good work and making sure that I was meeting my deliverables and the goals of the company,” Kern said. “But when I put my foot on the gas, it was always like ‘pump the brakes’…. it was a constant helicopter, micromanaging scenario.”

Kyles said she wants to see more companies investing in the success of Black women instead of putting them in “impossible situations.”

Corporations should offer mental resources, equal pay, professional development, mentorship for Black women and make a serious commitment to hiring more than just one woman or person of color for optics, Kyles said.

“I think when people are applauding themselves for giving Black women these leadership roles that they deserve and almost never get, I think they are forgetting the part where you give them the resources, you give them the tools and you give them the support that they need to succeed,” Kyles said. “Because that’s just not something that we receive.”

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