In 1951, Doris McCubbin, a fiction writer and aspiring journalist, took an entry-level advertising promotion job at Chatelaine. Within six years she was named editor-in-chief, and as Doris Anderson (her married name), she would become one of the most successful and significant editors in Canadian media. During her tenure, which lasted into the 1970s, she transformed a polite ladies journal into a fiery feminist newsmagazine, running stories on abortion, wage inequality, racism, domestic violence, immigration, birth control, and political representation. It was revolutionary—as a point of comparison, Ms. magazine wouldn’t be launched in the U.S. until 1972—and not just editorially. When Anderson became editor, circulation stood at 480,000; by the late 1960s, she had increased it to 1.8 million. In the kind of compliment that women no longer have to receive with gritted-teeth smiles (even if its spirit endures in subtler ways), Floyd Chalmers, president of Chatelaine’s then-publisher, Maclean-Hunter, reportedly said of Anderson: “What I like about Doris is that she looks like a woman, acts like a lady, and works like a dog.”
Chalmers may have admired Anderson’s drive, but he didn’t reward her for it. Despite Chatelaine’s surging circulation and ad revenue, which padded Maclean-Hunter’s bottom line, Anderson was paid less than half the salary of the male editor-in-chief of Maclean’s: $23,000 to his $53,000, as Sandra Martin reported in Anderson’s 2007 Globe and Mail obituary. When Anderson later applied to be editor of Maclean’s, Peter Gzowski was hired instead. She pursued becoming publisher of Chatelaine; a man got that job, too. Years later, she was still angry at the injustice; “I would have had that [Maclean’s] job in a flash if I had been a man,” she told Martin shortly before her death.
I like to think that Anderson would be pleased to learn that times have changed. Women now hold many of the most powerful positions in Canadian media. In addition to helming traditional women’s titles such as Chatelaine, Elle Canada, and Fashion, they top the masthead at many of Canada’s best-known magazines and newspapers. Maclean’s, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Huffington Post Canada, the Montreal Gazette, the Toronto Sun, Metroland Media Toronto, and the Hill Times, are all run by women, as is this publication you are reading. And that’s just print and online; women also hold a number of top posts in broadcast media. There are women heading news and current affairs divisions at the CBC, APTN, and CTV.
Women, in fact, have never had more control and decision-making power in shaping news and current affairs coverage in Canada. This rise in female leadership, unfortunately, happens to coincide with the industry’s freefall. Just as women have, in significant numbers, hustled and strived their way to the top, the Great 21st-Century Media Disruption has emptied their newsrooms and upended their business models. Or is it the other way around? Just as the entire industry is thrown into chaos and uncertainty, women are being ushered into corner offices. More accurately—for any fact-checkers who’ve survived multiple rounds of layoffs—they’ve been ushered into slightly larger cubicles, since offices have been declared too lavish for ever-diminishing budgets, along with assistants, expense accounts, parties, catered lunches, and many of the other perks enjoyed for decades by their male predecessors.
And on second thought, that so many women are in leadership roles at this moment of chaos is perhaps not coincidental at all. In 2017, the Public Policy Forum published a study called The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, which noted that the Canadian news media’s “march to the precipice appears to be picking up speed,” citing recent cutbacks at Rogers, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia, and the Toronto Star. That precipice has a name. Female media execs and editors-in-chief in this country seem to be poised at the edge of what psychologists and sociologists have dubbed “the glass cliff.”
While the “glass ceiling” refers to the unacknowledged barriers that prevent the advancement of white women, people of colour, and those from other marginalized groups, the “glass cliff” describes a related and equally nefarious systemic hurdle. The term was introduced in an academic paper from the University of Exeter in Britain a little more than a decade ago to define the observed phenomenon of women being appointed or elected to leadership positions in business and politics in precarious times or following a crisis (inevitably one created by a man). Looking at the performance of the 100 largest companies on the London Stock Exchange, researchers found that women were disproportionately hired as CEOs during long periods of struggle. Companies that did well rarely promoted women to top positions. Subsequent studies of U.S. Fortune 500 companies confirmed the trend.
This real-life pattern was borne out in laboratory tests conducted by the researchers. In one, subjects were asked to choose between two equally qualified candidates—one male, one female—to replace the CEO of a hypothetical company. When told the company had previously been led by men and was doing well, 62 percent chose the male candidate. But when the male-led company was in crisis, 69 percent chose the female one. In a similar test, researchers found that when told a hypothetical company was thriving, subjects preferred leaders with stereotypically male strengths (such as competitiveness). When a company was described to be in crisis, however, they said stereotypically female skills, such as good communication and empathy, were needed.
More recently, those same researchers have suggested that the glass cliff exists in politics as well. Women in the U.K. are more likely than men to be nominated in unwinnable constituencies, and even the rise of female leadership at the top levels in British politics today—Britain’s prime minister and Scotland’s first minister are currently both women—has occurred, they note, after the turmoil of Brexit and the Scottish referendum.
Women are, of course, not the only group to have faced discrimination when it comes to leadership roles, and data shows the glass cliff phenomenon applies to other outsider groups. Analysis of three U.K. elections between 2001 and 2010 revealed that the Conservative Party was inclined to run female and ethnic minority candidates for what the researchers called “hopeless” seats. Consider that it was during the global economic meltdown of 2008 that the U.S. elected Barack Obama to be the country’s first African American president. And in Canada, the federal NDP’s Orange Wave of 2011 elected a significant number of young students and women who had been recruited to run as poteaux (or paper candidates) in “unwinnable” Quebec ridings. Likewise, in a study on race and leadership in sports, an examination of basketball head coaches at American universities and colleges found that people of colour were more likely to be promoted to lead losing teams than to lead winning ones.
This isn’t to suggest at all that these politicians, journalists, coaches, and CEOs, real or hypothetical, lack the talent, vision, and expertise of their white male counterparts—just the opposite. Crisis situations appear to temporarily remove structural and personal biases that had previously and unfairly thwarted their progress. If one is tempted to view these moments, then, as an opportunity for positive disruption and meaningful change, it’s worth remembering that it’s called a “cliff” for a reason. Certain individuals have achieved extraordinary success in dire moments. But the glass cliff can be a set-up for failure—opportunity when the odds for success could not be lower. Worse, should a woman not be able to turn around a flailing business or failing economy, it reinforces the myth that women can’t be successful leaders.
In the case of Canadian media, women leaders have been given an impossible assignment: in an already small market, remake an industry that never fully recovered from the great recession and which has been utterly transformed by the internet and social media. Last year, journalist and Atkinson fellow Catherine Wallace examined the “new newsroom” in her year-long series for the Toronto Star. She wrote that we are at once experiencing the “democratization of news and information” (meaning we have more accessible platforms to express ourselves) and the disappearance of traditional media jobs, the kind that afforded time for research and investigation, supported both local news coverage and foreign bureaus, and provided journalists with union-protected salaries, benefits, and pensions. Even positive developments in the industry, such as the current corporate commitment to more inclusive workplaces, which has resulted in a modest swell of energetic young people of diverse backgrounds entering newsrooms, are undermined by the reality that these jobs are more difficult, more intense, more poorly paid, and more precarious than they were a decade or two ago.
The result of these industry-wide financial pressures, Wallace points out, “is the decline and weakening of quality journalism itself, particularly at the community level, and it affects all of us, whether we think of ourselves as news consumers or not.” Between withering ad and subscription revenues, and the fake news circulating on platforms like Facebook, contemporary journalists find themselves having to reinvent the job every year or two in attempts to stay ahead of the looming crisis. We became “platform agnostic.” We published content online for free. We built paywalls. We obsessed over search engine optimization and social media. We embraced listicles with outrageous headlines. We invested in serious long-form writing and investigative reporting. We embraced hot takes and opinion writing. We published bespoke print editions. We crowdsourced subscribers. We pivoted to video.
No one could have entirely foreseen this cataclysm in legacy media, but some of its effects might have been mitigated had the old guard running the industry in the 1990s and early 2000s better understood and responded to the threat posed by technological and cultural shifts. Instead, mainstream media was slow to adapt to the digital revolution. Part of the problem was that executives were older and more homogenous in their backgrounds and thinking. Diversity of opinion and experience has been shown to result in more creative problem-solving and more thoughtful decision-making. Many of the early adopters of social media—such as the digital-native millennials now hosting their own lucrative YouTube channels and Instagram feeds, or those who spawned a parallel industry of commentary, journalism, activism, and comedy through Black Twitter, Indigenous Twitter, Queer Twitter, Desi Twitter, Latinx Twitter, and so on—were not well-represented at senior levels in the mainstream industry. Had they been, and had their voices, experience, and talents been more valued by traditional media outlets, it is possible that the industry’s current situation wouldn’t be so calamitous.
Whether women can fix the industry before it falls off the precipice—taking them with it—remains uncertain. In an optimistic prediction about journalism in 2018, Jennifer Coogan, the chief content officer for the education technology start-up Newsela, writes that “there’s a surfeit of female talent that’s been sitting too long on the bench,” and she envisions a future that makes far better use of that talent. One of the results of the #MeToo movement is that there have been consequences (at last) for misconduct: firings, resignations, reassignments, and a renewed call for staff that better represent and reflect the world as a whole. Room has opened up for people who have long been sidelined and overlooked.
If there is a companion model to the glass cliff, it is a “glass wave,” if you will: a lively, younger, innovative, more inclusive generation of producers and writers at new media outlets who are increasingly influencing mainstream coverage. This group, as well as the women who have risen in the ranks of traditional newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, have, as Coogan suggests, tremendous potential to reinvigorate and fortify media.
That said, even the blockbuster newcomers are struggling right now. The seemingly invincible BuzzFeed has announced lay-offs and restructuring, following a revenue shortfall last year, and Vox Media and Mashable have each cut jobs as well. The cycle of disruption and innovation, as the American historian and writer Jill Lepore has written, often eats the disruptors, too. At some point in the future, difficult as this is to imagine, the flux of the news media’s present is bound to settle into something more stable, whatever its shape. The real test of progress will be in how many women and people of colour, at last given a chance to participate and lead, will find durable, sustaining careers in that unknown new world.