Women Leaders in the WNBA: Gaining Ground or Walking Onto the Glass Cliff?

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) just released the 2009 Race and Gender Report Card for the WNBA. The WNBA is the only professional league to get an “A+” for both race and gender two years in a row, a feat that remains elusive to any other professional league.

In terms of gender here are some highlights:
+ In 2008, women made gains in terms of percentage as head and coaches, team vice presidents, senior administrators and professional administrators, but lost ground slightly in the League Office. In the 2009 season update, at the beginning of the season, women gained further ground with a 10% increase as head
coaches (46%), a 4% point increase as general managers (to 58%) and a 10% increase as CEO/President (to 43%).
+ Donna Orender remains the only woman president of a professional sports league.
+ The number of women in the CEO/Presidents role for WNBA teams increased from four to five at the start of the 2008 season, and from five to six in 2009.

The TIDES report ushers in good news for women leaders and the WNBA, during a summer in which the floundering economy has taken its toll on the league. The numbers are heartening, but after just reading a book chapter about the “glass cliff” for women in organizations, it left me wondering if the increase of women in all positions of power in the WNBA might not be all positive.

glasscliff_no titleMost everyone is familiar with the glass ceiling metaphor commonly used to describe the often subtle and unseen social-structural gendered barriers that prevent women from reaching the highest echelons of corporate leadership.

The glass cliff is a similar metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of women’s appointments to precarious leadership positions. The glass cliff illuminates the stress experienced by women who have made it through the glass ceiling (i.e., Head Coaches, CEOs, Presidents of WNBA teams) and find themselves in a more vulnerable and precarious position than their male counterparts. Women on the glass cliff often fight an uphill battle for success, without the support, information and resources needed to effectively execute the job.

Researchers have recently uncovered that when organizations are in crisis and have a high risk for failure, women are more often appointed to positions of leadership. Two explanations are offered: 1) women are perceived as particularly well-suited to manage the crisis, or 2) women are appointed to glass cliff positions because those who appoint them want to protect men (or expose women).

Are women being appointed to more positions of power in the WNBA, so failure of the league (if it happens…and I hope it doesn’t!) can in turn be attributed to women?

[photo credit to liikennevalo and knowhr.com]

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