In the midst of loss and grief over the announcement that Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond will close next June, the outpouring of condolences has underlined the many ways the school has been important in Baptist life since its founding in 1991 as a response to the controversy that led to the exodus and exile of moderates and progressives from Southern Baptist seminaries.
Little noted in these ensuing expressions of shock and sadness is that BTSR’s closing has come less than 16 months after Linda McKinnish Bridges became the seminary’s first woman president. While that fact may be coincidental, scholars of gender have identified a pattern: women hired for top leadership positions often find themselves on a glass cliff.
Most people are familiar with the notion of the glass ceiling. After losing the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton famously suggested that, although she and her primary voters had not cracked the glass ceiling, they had put about 18 million cracks in it. The glass ceiling is that hardened but invisible barrier that prevents most women from attaining the highest levels of leadership.
The glass cliff is its companion. Researchers Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam found that institutions often hire women for leadership positions when an institution is in trouble, and leadership is risky. (“The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over‐Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” British Journal of Management, June 2005). Then, when the institution fails, those women leaders shoulder the responsibility and the blame. In the business world, one can point to CEOs such as Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Patricia Russo of Lucent Technologies and its successor, Alcatel-Lucent.
“We need to be informed about the glass cliff phenomenon and its implications for our institutions, organizations and churches.”
As an outside observer, I am not privy to the details behind the trustees’ decision to employ Bridges as BTSR’s third president or their recent decision to close the school. Nor am I weighing in on the effectiveness of the seminary president’s leadership over a brief period, although I have known Bridges for many years and have been impressed with her leadership gifts. What I am suggesting is that this could be an important “teachable moment” for moderate and progressive Baptists. We need to be informed about the glass cliff phenomenon and its implications for our institutions, organizations and churches.
Women end up on the glass cliff for a variety of reasons. Gender stereotypes can lead board members or search committees to believe that women are innately better at taking care and cleaning up messes. So when an organization finds itself in a mess, it may well turn to a woman to fix it. Hiring a woman also signals change. So when an organization seems headed in a wrong direction, it may hire a woman to suggest a change in course.
As Kathy Caprino and Shraysi Tandon noted in a 2015 article for Forbes, men on boards may also want to protect other men, whom they see as part of their “in-group.” If an institution is having difficulty, men, who often make up the majority of board members, may not want to put another man at risk. Since women in this case are an “out-group,” boards (or search committees) may feel less trepidation about putting women in precarious situations.
Very little of this, of course, is conscious. It’s subtle, and that’s why it’s so easy to deny (It’s also likely to happen to people of color and LGBTQ people). Not surprisingly, research suggests that women are much more likely than men to believe glass cliffs are the result of malign processes. Men often believe more benign explanations, question if the phenomenon even exists, or think women may not be suitable for challenging leadership assignments.
Research also notes that the glass cliff is less likely in organizations that already have a lot of women in higher-level leadership positions. This may be the most salient point for moderate and progressive Baptists, especially at Baptist-affiliated seminaries, theology schools and universities. Facilitating advancement of women into leadership broadly is an essential step in mitigating the likelihood of another glass cliff.
The occasional “exceptional woman” leader should not be the norm. Rather, women, like men, should occupy positions of leadership as a matter of course so that, when women do rise to the top of leadership, it will not be because an organization is in crisis. Nor will it any longer seem remarkable.