Amy Shelly, CFO of The Options Clearing Corp.

As women begin to crack open the glass ceiling, the phenomenon of the so-called glass cliff is emerging. The glass cliff is the notion that women in leadership roles often get top jobs when things are dangerously bad and the probability for failure is extremely high. But what if she doesn’t succeed in getting the job done during this period of crisis or downturn?

“If you don’t succeed, you’re gone,” said Amy Shelly, CFO of The Options Clearing Corp., during a panel discussion on the topic at CFO Live, a recent conference hosted by CFO. “That’s a hard message. Women are still held to a very different standard than men are. It’s higher. It’s harder. And I haven’t quite figured out how to change that assumption and mindset.”

Stepping into any new career opportunity runs the risk of failure, but building an engaging team of advocates may be a particularly valuable strategy to succeed if you find yourself on the glass cliff. 

Said fellow panel member Jamie Cohen, CFO at ANGI Homeservices and one of the youngest women to hold the finance chief spot at a publicly held company: “So even in this glass cliff phenomenon, we’re not standing on a cliff alone. We’re surrounded by people who are collaborating with us to have good ideas and hopefully solve the really hard problems.” She added, “Women are maybe more apt to collaborate or ask for help than try to stand on their own, so perhaps that is one way that we are better at solving really hard problems, because we’re not doing it on our own.”


Amy Shelly talks about her decision to stay in corporate finance

Jamie Cohen, CFO at ANGI Homeservices

Another obstacle to a woman’s career progress is the broken rung. The broken rung refers to the first step on the corporate ladder, the initial promotion to management. Men are far more likely than women to get those promotions. So, how can women be encouraged to go for leadership positions in roles that are currently dominated by men? Building a relationship with strong mentors is a start.

“With respect to mentorship, I try to mentor both genders or all people, any high-potential person in my organization,” said Debi Chirichella, finance chief at Hearst Magazines. “I do think it’s important that women promote other women. We tend to promote people who look like us. And I think that the more women there are in the senior ranks, the more women that will come up.”

Debi Chirichella, CFO at Hearst Magazines

As women continue to be underrepresented both in the C-suite and on boards of directors, acknowledging that there is an issue with the lack of women in leadership roles is the first step toward addressing the lack of gender diversity. 

“Every CEO I’ve ever worked for in the industry is a man,” said Chirichella. “Within my organization, there are a lot of women in high-level positions, but they’re not quite at that corporate level. The first part is acknowledging that you do have a gender bias in certain parts of your organization. You need to make a concerted effort to change it and you need to hold yourselves accountable to that.”

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