Is Hillary Clinton Breaking The Glass Ceiling Or Being Pushed Off The Glass Cliff?

In her 2008 concession speech, Hillary Clinton highlighted the historic nature of her failed bid for the presidency. At Washington D.C.’s National Building Museum, the first-ever female candidate for the Oval Office memorably told the raucous crowd, Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Those words reference the “glass ceiling,” a common term for the barriers to entry many women face when seeking public office, leadership positions, or even a promotion at work. Many of those roadblocks are both practically invisible and difficult to break through. Despite earning a majority of university degrees, women account for just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 14 percent of corporate America’s top-earning executives. In a 2014 poll, Gallup pointed to one reason why: 46 percent of respondents preferred a male boss, as opposed to the 33 percent who favored a woman in management. (Twenty percent had no preference.)

Two years ago, the New Yorker argued that it was getting better for women in leadership: They cited the rise of CEOs like General Motors’ Mary Barra and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer as evidence that the “hole in the glass ceiling is getting bigger.” However, their success is just as indicative of an opposite phenomenon, one that has continued to prove a problem for Ms. Clinton. Instead of breaking through the glass ceiling, they’re being thrown off the “glass cliff.”

That term was coined by researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2008. In a series of experiments, Ryan and Haslam conducted tests on 83 businesspeople, who were presented a variety of candidates, both male and female. These subjects had to decide when it would be appropriate to promote them to upper management. For a firm that was successful, respondents were more likely to select a male candidate for the director position. When that business was undergoing hard times, a woman was more likely to be chosen for the task.

According to Ryan, the implicit reasoning was reflective of ingrained gender biases in the workplace. “If someone has to be the scapegoat to take the fall, you’re not going to put your best man forward,” she said. The New York Times’ Clive Thompson further explains that “women are thrust into desperate situations precisely because they’re likely to fail, generating ‘proof’ that women can’t handle responsibility.”

The glass cliff is a noted phenomenon in the private sector, and it forces women to take much of the blame for their companies’ troubled legacies. In 2012, Marissa Mayer became Yahoo’s first female CEO at a time when the company’s mid-90s glory days were a distant memory; her tenure has done little to turn things around, with stock plummeting 35 percent in 2015. Critics have not only advocated that she be fired (there’s even a Facebook page) but also referred to her as “arrogant” and “delusional.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that about Jack Dorsey, the bearded golden boy recently given the reins at Twitter while the company struggles with growth.

Mayer, who has been criticized for everything from her Vogue shoot (tacky!) to taking just two weeks of maternity leave (bad for women!), is but one example. There’s also Erin Callan, Lehman Brothers’ first female CFO, who would move into her new office less than a year before the 2008 financial crash. After inheriting the crisis from her predecessors, Slate’s Bryce Covert argued that Lehman used her as a “scapegoat.” He writes, “Callan was one of just four former Lehman executives chastised in a 2,200-page bankruptcy court report.”

This phenomenon of punishing women for their company’s foibles is even more widespread than you might think: A 2010 report from Catalyst showed that senior female employees were 200 percent more likely to be let go from their positions than their male co-workers during the economic downturn. That’s a lot of women being pushed off the edge.

This phenomenon, however, isn’t exclusive to women in the corporate sector. In 2008, the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was tapped to be the running mate for John McCain’s presidential campaign, a burst of energy on a ticket that desperately needed it. But as the Huffington Post’s Barbara Lee notes, Palin was “thrown into the big leagues before the party fully vetted her,” unpolished and unprepared in interviews. Remember her infamous Katie Couric interview, in which she struggled to think of a single newspaper she read? Of course you do, because it was played ad nauseam.

Although she was largely blamed for McCain’s eventual loss in the race, that’s hardly true. According to Real Clear Politics, McCain simply couldn’t survive the Wall Street backlash. Their team writes that McCain asserted that “the economy was fundamentally sound,” while “assisting Bush and Hank Paulson [to] push through a wildly unpopular bank bailout.” This stance did not win him many converts at a time when millions of Americans were losing their jobs. Thus, John McCain’s problem isn’t what Palin did but what he didn’t do: Take a stand against the big banks.

Hillary Clinton may wind up being a victim of the glass cliff twice. If female leaders tend to be boosted when the stakes—and the potential risk—are highest, the Times argued that was absolutely true of Clinton’s 2008 candidacy: “Perhaps it was only during extremely hard times that America would finally consider a woman and a black man for the highest office.”

In both years, Hillary Clinton inherited not only a country facing economic uncertainty but a Democratic party that’s becoming increasingly divided—liberals vs. moderates, young progressives vs. veteran voters, and whites vs. people of color. Clinton won in Iowa but lost the youth vote to her Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, by 70 points. Sanders is catching up to Clinton in South Carolina, but she remains way out in front with people of color: Sanders still only pulls in an estimated 20 percent of black voters in South Carolina, most of whom are millennials.

If you ever wondered why so many Republicans decided to run this year, it’s because Clinton remains tasked with an impossible situation. She must appeal to the most diverse base of voters in history while answering for the widespread dissatisfaction with the Obama administration (one in which she served as Secretary of State). Voting is often seen as a verdict on the prior presidency, and given that Barack Obama is currently hovering around a 50 percent approval rating, that does not inspire confidence.

Hillary Clinton’s recent struggle in the polls is likewise credited as a result of the Sanders surge, but in truth, the glass underneath her has been cracking all over again since at least 2014. Two years ago, Politico wrote that—despite her presumed frontrunner status—the former First Lady was struggling to please potential backers. “Clinton is seen by some liberals as too hawkish, too close to Wall Street and insufficiently aggressive on fighting climate change, income inequality and the role of money in politics,” Politico’s Kenneth Vogel wrote. Many of these donors were attempting to appeal to another candidate to run in her place.

Despite her own party’s hesitancy toward her, Clinton has been supported by a majority of superdelegates, with insiders saying that she has a 45-1 advantage over Sanders. But as Nate Silver reminds us, these delegates are not set in stone. “They can switch whenever they like, and some of them probably will switch to Sanders if he extends his winning streak into more diverse states and eventually appears to have more of a mandate than Clinton among Democratic voters,” he writes.

Hillary Clinton knows this fact better than anyone: It’s precisely what happened to her in 2008. Many believe that this group is unlikely to leave Clinton behind a second time, but it may be better than the alternative. Critics have suggested that if Hillary wins—based on the support of moderate, older voters and the DNC establishment—it will trigger a “mass insurrection against a rigged system.” Even when she wins, she still loses.

Hillary Clinton should take a great deal of the blame for her own situation: Her dealings with Wall Street have been insufficiently transparent, and she refuses to release the transcripts of speeches given to Goldman Sachs employees in October 2013. But if the New York Times endorsed Clinton as “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history,” she’s also been—by far—the most scrutinized, with everything from her email scandal and Benghazi to her voice and the cost of her pantsuits picked apart. She and Marissa Mayer have more in common than they don’t.

Back in 2008, Clinton suggested that no matter the outcome of her candidacy, it was a win for women. She argued that when women aspire to the top—even if they fail—it makes it easier for others to follow in their footsteps. But in reality, the opposite is just as true: When women in power are glass cliffed, it serves to reinforce many of the stereotypes that keep others from seeking positions of authority to begin with. As sociologist Marianne Cooper argues, “when a woman is forced off the cliff, it can reaffirm beliefs that women aren’t good leaders anyway.”

But in truth, this situation is not only bad for female candidate, it’s bad for voters. Throughout the 2016 race, we’ve continually been having the wrong conversation about Hillary Clinton: While figures like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright voice their support of her candidacy, it looks like the only reason to back Clinton is, well, because she’s a woman, instead of her incredible resumé and breadth of experience. If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you’re seen as uncritical of her numerous flaws; if you vote against her, you’re essentially another hand pushing her—and other women in positions of leadership—right off the edge.

2016 is shaping up to be an unwinnable race—not just for Hillary Clinton, but for everyone else.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-sellingBOYS anthology series.