30 May 2023

What's the glass cliff? Ask PwC about a posting that's not what it's cracked up to be

| Chris Johnson
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shattered glass

There’s a glass ceiling and then there’s the glass cliff. The latter term seems to fit the bill for PwC’s new acting CEO. Photo: File.

Ever noticed how when an organisation is in trouble it often promotes a female executive to the top job – usually just for the interim – and then turns back to a bloke once the crisis is either over or nearing its end?

Is it an actual thing that women are more likely to be placed in leadership positions that are precarious?

The Australian Labor Party did it with Julia Gillard and the UK Tories did it with Theresa May.

Corporations do it all the time.

Look at what happened to Shiv throughout the gripping Netflix series Succession (OK, that wasn’t a documentary but ”fiction mirrors reality” and all that).

Well, PricewaterhouseCoopers has just done it with Kristin Stubbins, PwC Australia’s acting chief executive officer freshly installed to weather the biggest (self-created) shitstorm the giant accounting firm has faced.

These are not what one would call the best of circumstances for a professional woman to break through the corporate glass ceiling.

There’s a term for it and it’s called “the glass cliff”.

It basically describes the situation where a woman (or a member of another minority group) makes it to the top but only when the risk of failure is high and the likelihood of falling off the cliff is ever-present.

The term was coined by the Australian National University’s Michelle Ryan and colleague Alex Haslam when both were undertaking research at England’s University of Exeter.

READ ALSO Treasury refers PwC matter to the AFP for criminal investigation

Professor Ryan is now the director of the ANU’s Global Institute of Women’s Leadership.

The research into the glass cliff was named by The New York Times as one of the top 100 ideas that shaped 2008, and in 2016 the term itself – the glass cliff – was shortlisted as Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

That’s pretty impressive – and it’s a very real phenomenon.

Has PwC Australia ever had a female CEO before?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Will Ms Stubbins remain the boss once the current scandal engulfing the firm finally dies down?

Probably the same answer.

PwC is now under Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation for a shocking betrayal of the Australian people.

A PwC partner shared confidential Treasury information, not just with the firm’s executives but with a string of clients to help them avoid paying taxes.

They were the very taxes PwC was helping the Government to introduce.

The breadth of the betrayal really can’t be overstated.

The then-partner at the centre of it all, Peter-John Collins, has departed the company, been deregistered as a tax agent, and is the initial focus of the AFP criminal investigation.

READ ALSO ‘Some public servants just don’t understand conflicts of interest’: ACT Integrity Commission CEO

The CEO who oversaw the whole disgrace, Tom Seymour, along with a couple of other top executives, have been removed from their roles.

More heads will roll over this.

For PwC, this is a crisis of monumental proportions, but one that no-one expected would be so huge and be lasting so long.

Must be time to put a woman in charge.

It’s a subtle thing – but it’s not really.

Barely eight years ago, PwC Australia executives were addressed by convicted felon and former financier Andrew Fastow of Enron fame.

Fastow was by then a motivational speaker sharing lessons from his experiences that had him jailed for defrauding Enron out of tens of millions of dollars.

To a very small group of PwC’s top brass in this country, Fastow presented his prison ID card and then also a Chief Financial Officer of the Year award he had won.

“I got them both for doing the same thing,” he told his attentive audience before stressing that “just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should” when it comes to knowing how to manipulate the system.

It was a powerful lesson that, from all accounts, seemed to be embraced by the PwC executives.

What went wrong?

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William Newby8:26 pm 01 Jun 23

All men are evil and must be punished, apparently.
Why with record levels of poor male mental health and sevens times the likelihood of suicide do we only have a Minister for Women, and an assumption that in order for females to be ‘successful’ these days they must all want to be EL2’s or higher, or better yet CEO’s.
The pressure we put on females with an assumption they all want to be managers, and the imbalance of having only federal representation for females is just wrong for all of us.

Maybe it is a case of promoting based on gender rather than ability these days.
Or, as Elizabeth Holmes proved, women can do no wrong…

No, it doesn’t appear to be that. Elizabeth Holmes started her 11 year prison sentence today, so…

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