Is Hillary Clinton, who is poised to shatter the nation's highest glass ceiling, destined to then step out onto the glass cliff?
The glass cliff, a phenomenon first described by British psychology professors Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, is shorthand for a perilous situation that awaits women who reach the top of their professions. Researchers studying politics, business, law firms, school districts and regulatory agencies have all explored the glass cliff at work: A woman takes a leadership role in a hard-to-succeed situation; she faces extra pressure, scrutiny and criticism; then she falters.
Clinton already is being shoved toward the precipice by opponents who want to delegitimize her presidency before the votes are even counted.
Donald Trump's campaign is staggering under the weight of multiple reports of his gross attitudes and behavior toward women. By repeating the unsupported charge that she is "crooked" and worthy of imprisonment, Trump is trying to make Clinton a loser of a president, even if she wins the election.
Women who have navigated themselves to leadership positions are all too familiar with the ways one can be set up to fail. Consider, first, that many women get their first top assignments in a moment of crisis or downturn. The task ahead is so difficult that many male colleagues didn't even apply. Still, women take the risk because they may never get another chance. Sometimes women beat the odds, as when Chief Executive Anne Mulcahy brought the Xerox Corp. back to life in the early 2000s. In other instances, no amount of hard work and talent can turn a bad situation into a success. Erin Callan was awarded the post of chief financial officer at Lehman Bros. and became the first woman on its executive committee as the bank teetered on the brink of disaster. She went down, as the bank did, and left the industry.
In Clinton's case, we have the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party. She indisputably has the talent and intelligence to occupy the most powerful office on Earth. Her experience — as a lawyer, first lady, senator and secretary of State — exceeds that of the last three presidents, before they were first elected, combined.
In the last debate Trump himself praised her grit, noting, "She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up." Then, two days later, his campaign launched a TV ad declaring she lacks the "stamina" to be president. It would've been more honest if Trump just came out and said Clinton cannot be president because she is female.
Whenever anyone resorts to a physical criticism to question a woman's abilities, what they're really saying is that just being a woman is a problem. This is a favorite Trump technique. He uses it routinely to insult women's looks. He used it against Megyn Kelly of Fox News after a primary debate in August. No one could mistake Trump's comment that Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever" for anything but what it was: a childish reference to menstruation.
Trump insists that his attacks on Kelly, Clinton and others aren't sexist. Such denial is a common tactic. The same people who insist there's no glass ceiling dismiss the idea of the glass cliff. They like it when women derail as leaders; it comports with their worldview.
The glass cliff phenomenon has also been studied among African American leaders, who likewise sometimes get plum spots only when crises arise. Like women, they then find a lack of support, or even outright hostility, as they try to succeed. President Obama was dogged by the "birther" conspiracy that suggested he was secretly foreign-born and thus ineligible for the presidency. The most prominent birther of all was Trump, who didn't denounce this crackpot notion until recently — and only barely. And then who did he blame for his five years of race-baiting? Hillary Clinton, of course.
Trump failed to oust Obama in 2012, and he is failing in his attempt to destroy Clinton's candidacy with misogyny. However, the amount of support both of his bigoted campaigns attracted tells us that too many Americans still believe only heterosexual white men are worthy of leadership. (Some Trump supporters are now tweet-advocating the repeal of the 19th Amendment — the one that extended the right to vote to women.) Now, trying to fire up his base, Trump will shovel more of this ghastliness onto voters in the days before the election.
When Clinton wins, she will make history and it will prove that Americans are better than Trump's pandering suggests. That's just the beginning, though. She'll also need our support after inauguration day to keep her presidency off the glass cliff.
Lynn O'Connor Vos is chief executive of ghg | greyhealth group.