Monday, June 22, 2009

Mulcahey and Burns: The Glass Cliff

Ursula Burns takes over the reins at Xerox today (July 1), and in doing so, achieves a number of firsts. Not only will she be the first African-American woman to serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she will also be part of the first female CEO-to-female CEO transition in the Fortune 500 as well (Burns takes over the reins from Anne Mulcahey, who has served as CEO for eight years and who will continue as the chair). quoted John Engler of the National Association of Manufacturers in describing the challenges Burns will face as CEO as "daunting." Such a situation is not unusual for female CEOs, as suggested by research conducted by S. Alexander Haslam and Michelle K. Ryan at The University of Exeter on a phenomenon they have identified as the "glass cliff."

Haslam & Ryan have found evidence that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions "that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure" (2004). Their analysis suggests that the phenomenon occurs in the appointment of women as directors on corporate boards, the selection of women for executive-level leadership positions in business, and the recruitment of women to run for highly contested political races. Their results have been consistent, in both their analysis of existing data and in experimental research they have conducted. Most of the coverage of their research has been in the U.K., but the New York Times referenced their work in their 8th annual "Year in Ideas" coverage this past December (2008).

Mulcahey, who by some accounts hand-picked Burns to succeed her, is confident of Burns' ability to lead Xerox through the current economic times. According to, in her remarks at the May 2009 Xerox annual meeting, Mulcahey noted that "there is no doubt in my mind that she [Burns] is the right person and that this is the right time for her."
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WASP Earn Congressional Gold Medal

As reported by Women's Policy Inc., Congress has approved legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the women who tested and ferried military aircraft for the Airforce during the second World War. The honor comes over sixty years after their service, but such has been the case throughout the history related to the program.

Little was known about these women and the service they provided to this country until the 1980s, when the records of their work were finally declassified. The 1,102 women selected to serve (25,000 women applied) flew over 60 million miles in a little less than two years, testing new planes prior to combat and ferrying planes and equipment between military bases. Thirty-eight women (38) lost their lives doing this work, and their colleagues and friends had to take up collections to pay for their funerals and burials. It was 1977 before the WASP were classified as members of the military, finally giving them access to the same military benefits that male ferry pilots had received from the beginning.

I became fascinated with their story while working on a project in Dayton for the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003; one of the best books I read on the subject was Amelia Earhart's Daughters: The Wild And Glorious Story Of American Women Aviators From World War II To The Dawn Of The Space Age by Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey. The first part of the book is about the WASP; the second half tells the story of the Mercury 13, the 13 women who passed all of the physical and psychological tests used to select the original seven U.S. (male) astronauts but who were denied entry into the program because they were women. (And for those interested in an Ohio connection, see A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II by Ann B. Carl. Carl flew out of Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton and frequently spent time with Orville Wright.)

Fast fact: the WASP mascot was Fifinella, a female gremlin created by Walt Disney for a proposed film. The WASP asked permission to use the character, and Disney agreed. I am a proud owner of a replica bomber jacket that features the WASP mascot patch on the front!

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