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Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino Is Teetering On The Glass Cliff

“You need to communicate as vividly and clearly as possible that you’re on some different trajectory. And the stronger the break from the past, the clearer the signaling,” Haslam says. “For that reason women or members of other minority groups are often preferentially appointed under these circumstances.”

Yaccarino’s background in advertising, Twitter’s primary source of revenue, certainly makes her a logical choice to try to salvage the company’s crumbling business. But experts who spoke to WIRED say that one reason women step into risky glass cliff roles is that they generally have few other chances to take leadership positions, despite being highly qualified.

“For a lot of executive women, sometimes their first opportunity to step into a role that’s really that powerful is to do a turnaround of an entire division or company,” says Coco Brown, CEO of the Athena Alliance, a networking organization for women executives in business.

That can make turning down a precarious glass cliff role difficult, even when the risks are evident. According to Glass of the University of Utah, though women are more likely to be appointed in times of crisis they are also more likely to be blamed for the crisis itself and, later, replaced by a white male CEO in what researchers have dubbed the savior effect.

“Very rarely are women CEOs given a second chance,” Glass says. “It’s a double whammy for women CEOs: These crisis appointments may be the only opportunities they have, and by virtue of stepping into them they put their future leadership careers in jeopardy.”

But, Glass says, many times women are often best suited to help right the ship. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, famously brought the company back from the brink of failure after the 2008 financial crash. Anne Mulachy took over as CEO of Xerox as it was flailing, making it profitable, before stepping down in 2009.

Yaccarino’s chances of success, says Sandra Quince CEO at Paradigm for Parity, an organization addressing the gender gap in businesses, will partly depend on how much time and freedom she’s given to turn the ship around. The support of the board and Musk’s willingness to truly let go of the reins could be crucial.

Musk has said that with Yaccarino in as CEO he will become executive chair of Twitter’s board as well as the company’s CTO. He’s also CEO of Tesla and of SpaceX, where president and COO Gwynne Shotwell is responsible for day-to-day operations. 

“She’s going to need the board to be supportive of her vision that she has for the organization,” Quince says. “She’s going to need someone to run air cover for her. In times like this, where you’re trying to figure it out, no one is perfect, and mistakes can be made.”

It may be tempting to see Yaccarino’s appointment as the cynical last gasp of a failing company. But Brown of the Athena Alliance says Yaccarino’s bravery should be applauded, whether or not Twitter turns out to be salvageable.

“We shouldn’t be saying that has been set up to fail publicly but that she has decided that this is her shot to try something a bit heroic,” says Brown. “By most people’s accounts, she is going to fail. But wouldn’t it be cool if she pulls it out?” If Yaccarino manages that, it might be the most surprising twist of all in the spiraling tale of Musk’s takeover.