The Glass Cliff
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue twenty two of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee :)
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
You’ve likely heard of the glass ceiling (an unacknowledged societal barrier to advancement in a profession, which especially affects women and members of minority groups), but have you heard of the glass cliff?
Until this week, dear reader, I had not.
Or, perhaps, more accurately, it was something I suspected might indeed be a “thing”; but I didn’t realise that “thing” had a name, or that anyone had looked closely at it. This 2018 article from Vox is a great primer:
“The glass cliff is a relative of the “glass ceiling”…
Women are elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly….
They’re put into precarious positions and therefore have a higher likelihood of failure. And it’s not just a phenomenon reserved for women; it happens with minority groups, too.”
So, what’s the deal?
In 2003, an article in the Times suggested that women leaders have a negative impact on company performance:
“SO MUCH for smashing the glass ceiling and using their unique skills to enhance the performance of Britain’s biggest companies. The march of women into the country’s boardrooms is not always triumphant — at least in terms of share price performance.
Analysis of FTSE 100 shares shows that companies that decline to embrace political correctness by installing women on the board perform better than those that actively promote sexual equality at the very top.”
It’s not an article that’s aged well, huh?
This horribly gleeful, DATA PROVES WOMEN ARE BAD FOR BUSINESS article presents a piece of analysis, seemingly undertaken either by the journalist Elizabeth Judge, and/or others at the Times.
The problem is, that analysis was horribly flawed.
Following Judge’s 2003 article, University of Exeter researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam conducted their own study in 2005.
Here’s a quote from their paper which highlights the problems with the analysis Judge presented:
“…the article presents data suggesting that companies with women on their boards tend to perform more poorly than those whose boards are wholly male.
Using an index compiled by the Cranfield School of Management (Singh and Vinnicombe, 2003) which ranks the FTSE 100 companies in relation to the percentage of women on their boards of directors, Judge reports that of the top ten companies in the index (i.e. those with the highest percentage of women on their boards), six have underperformed relative to the FTSE 100 throughout 2003.
In contrast, Judge reports that the five companies on the bottom of the index – companies that are wholly male – have all outperformed the FTSE 100 in 2003.
From this analysis Judge concludes that ‘corporate Britain may be better off without women on the board’.
However, on their own, these figures are far from conclusive and a number of serious methodological problems can be identified in Judge’s analysis.
First, the article reports no statistical analysis, stating simply that six of the top ten companies underperformed.
Furthermore, closer examination of the original Cranfield Index (Singh and Vinnicombe, 2003) reveals that, curiously, Judge failed to report the performance of the two companies at the very bottom of the index (i.e. those with the lowest percentage of women on board).
Importantly, both of these companies underperformed relative to the FTSE 100 in 2003.
Therefore, a more complete picture indicates that six of the ten top companies with women directors (i.e. 60%) underperformed relative to the FTSE 100, while two of the bottom five companies without women directors (40%) under-performed – a difference that is far from statistically significant (w2 (1) 5 0.40 p 5 0.53).”
In their study Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam go on to note:
“ …A more sophisticated analysis is required to examine the purported link between having women in leadership positions and a company’s financial performance. Moreover, if such an association can be identified, the merit of multiple explanations of the relationship needs to be considered.
In particular, if the relationship identified by Judge (2003) holds, one obvious alternative explanation of the association would simply involve reversing its causal sequencing:
Thus, rather than the appointment of women leaders precipitating a drop in company performance, it is equally plausible that a company’s poor performance could be a trigger for the appointment of women to the board.”
I HAVE SO MUCH LOVE FOR RYAN AND HASLAM.
Their study not only helped highlight the flaws in the analysis Judge presented in 2003, their hypothesis that poorly performing companies were more likely to appoint women turned out to be true:
“Women are particularly likely to be placed in positions of leadership in circumstances of general financial downturn and downturn in company performance…
The leadership positions that women occupy are likely to be less promising than those of their male counterparts”
Effectively, women were being set up for failure at a higher rate than men.
Researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass at Utah State University followed up Ryan and Haslam’s study with their own research examining Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period.
They reported similar findings: White women, and men and women of colour, were more likely to be promoted to CEO of companies which are performing poorly.
In a phone interview with Vox, Cook was asked why companies bring in women and minorities specifically when things are going badly?
“When firms are doing poorly, the really qualified white male candidates say, ‘I don’t want to step into this’.
Women and minorities might feel like this might be their only shot, so they need to go ahead and take it.”
What prompted me to tumble down this particular rabbit hole? I watched The Chair, Netflix; which, whilst fictional, is a great example of the glass cliff in action.
Moar serendipitous finds:
In her 2017 book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, author Roxane Gay, relates stories about the rudeness she often encounters when seated next to strangers on a plane. She considers fatphobia a feminist issue, writing:
“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space.”
British artist Jenny Saville’s artworks which celebrates the beauty of fat women are helping chart a path for women painters who talk back to the female nudes that dominate art history.
In this article, Gay, who is based in the US, and Saville, who is based in the UK, talk over Zoom on the subject of fatness and feminism, as well as their shared commitment to nurturing a younger generation of women writers and artists.
Journalist Meghan O'Gieblyn receives an Aibo (the robot dog with the £2,250 price tag), to review.
In this article she shares both her experiences of living with Aibo, and how technologies are perhaps altering our perceptions of consciousness:
“Today, artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality.
These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.”
She’s just published a book: God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning which I’m really keen to read.
New research by Joey Cheng, an assistant professor of psychology at York University, shows that overconfidence can be contagious.
“If you have been exposed to an overconfident person, then you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing.”
It’s a tendency that could cause dangerously deluded thinking to spread through a team.
Cheng says that she had been inspired by the anecdotal reports of behaviour on Wall Street, where arrogance appears to be rife. “When you go to other sectors like education, you often don't hear teachers being described in the same way”. These differences led her to wonder whether certain groups of people might actually encourage the development an inflated ego in others. Some previous research had hinted at this possibility, and Cheng wanted to put the idea to the test.
Sea snakes aren’t angry when they aggressively swim at divers, scientists say. They’re just confused and looking to mate…
“I don’t know how you would say it other than the snakes have got their beer goggles on,” Dr. Sanders said. “Their hormones are skewing their behavior.”
At the heart of Matt Small’s practice is the idea that “there’s always potential within everything.” The British artist is primarily concerned with the overarching theme of disregard in both his subject matter, and material, using items that have been relegated to the trash to construct his metallic portraits.
His mosaics link overconsumption and our widespread tendencies to throw away what’s deemed obsolete or undesirable, to the ways adolescents are frequently marginalised and not seen as viable members of society.
“Because of the social backgrounds they come from, young people find themselves overlooked, disregarded, and left uninvested in.
Marrying the discarded item and painting a portrait of a young person on it or utilizing the material to construct a mosaic face, I hope that the viewer sees that everybody and everything has a right to be viewed as valuable and of worth.
It’s just up to us to see that.”
Part II: AMA
Following my last newsletter, (wherein I was critical of Slack, because the ways in which I’ve observed it being used, and some of the behaviours it engenders are frequently problematic), I received this question from a reader via email:
“Are there any types of technology which positively impact your life? Lifestyle tech and gamification seem to work really well for my partner; for example he bought an Oral B toothbrush, and since buying his apple watch, he’s started tracking his walks.”
I love this question! I have a tendency to view almost all technology either negatively, cynically, or both; and yet of course there are various technologies which I use which do positively impact my life. This question gifted me with an opportunity to think more about the positives, and provided me with a welcome break from the tinfoil-hatted-tech-fearing-Negative-Nancy role I so frequently cast myself in.
Well, kinda… There’s a bit of tinfoil-hatted-tech-fearing-Negative-Nancy stuff I need to deal with first, and a bit which I’ll return to later.
But to the question: I choose to avoid pretty much any and all gamified lifestyle tech like nutrition, exercise, and sleep tracking. Partly this is because I don't like the idea of my data hanging around out there - I worry that it'll be used at some point in ways I don't like. Depending on your point of view, that’s either a legitimate concern, or that’s tinfoil-hatted-tech-fearing-Negative-Nancy rearing her head.
However, the main reason I dodge it is because that gamification stuff just doesn't act as a motivator for me. I recognise that for lots of people tracking things like their step count means that they walk more (and that's great!) but I guess I just don’t care enough about closing rings, or hitting step count targets or whatever else those apps track.
Sleep tracking is a particular personal pain point. I’ve had problems with sleeping ever since I was a teenager. I have periods where I sleep a little better, and periods where my sleep is much worse.
I DO NOT NEED A SLEEP TRACKER TO TELL ME THAT I’VE AVERAGED 4 HOURS SLEEP PER NIGHT OVER THE PAST MONTH.
TRUST ME, I ALREADY KNOW.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to resolve whatever it is that causes my sleep problems, but I’m 100% confident that sleep tracking is not the solution. I suspect that for me, tracking sleep actually exacerbates the problem. Seeing how little I’ve slept causes me to further obsess over it, which, in turn has a tendency to make sleep even more elusive.
For people who either don’t suffer from sleep problems, or for whom the root cause of their sleeping problems is different from mine, I’d acknowledge that these types of technologies may well be helpful. If it works for you, that’s great; but it’s not for me.
However, some of these apps seem to work really well for my parents, and in that sense they definitely positively impact my life (albeit indirectly), and I’m grateful that they exist.
For example, my Dad tracks his steps pretty religiously, and it has changed his behaviour - he’ll go out for a walk if he hasn’t hit his step count for the day. Tracking that stuff is keeping him moving which is unequivocally a really great thing.
In a similar vein, my Mum had been suffering from health problems, and was referred to a dietician. The dietician downloaded an app on to my Mum’s phone which allowed her to easily keep a type of food diary; again, this seemed to work great for my Mum, and her health has improved which is fantastic.
There are also a bunch of other technologies that I use, that have a positive impact on my life. Here are some examples:
There’s Google, right? It’s a scary company and they wield far too much power, but a whole bunch of their products make my life easier: search, maps, gmail (still better than other email provider, from my perspective), calendar, google drive (all my stuff being in the cloud, rather than being stored locally is nothing other than brilliantly useful).
My Kindle. I still love actual books, that are made of paper and smell like hopes, dreams, and endless possibilities; but I live in a tiny flat, and just don’t have the space to store the hundred or so books I read each year. For me, whilst physical books beat e-books in almost every single way, (plus, Amazon are another scary company that wield too much power); my Kindle wins in terms of convenience of storage.
I love “magic tele”. Magic tele is basically any on-demand TV platform - Amazon Prime, Netflix, iPlayer, whatever - it’s all magic tele; (but yet again, we have scary companies here, huh?). Nevertheless, I’m old enough to remember a time when TV was not on-demand; if there was something you wanted to watch, you had to tune at the time it was broadcast (and hope that there wasn’t anything else on at the same time that someone else wanted to watch). VCRs then came along. I remember the day that the man from Radio Rentals came to install the VCR we’d rented (oh, brave new world!). But still, you’d sometimes mess up, and rather than recording your show you’d find you’d accidentally recorded the snooker. Plus, it was easy to forget to rewind the tape so you’d only get half your show before the tape ran out. Or worse, you’d record your show, but another member of your family would record over it. As such, the VCR led to many family fall outs. With magic tele you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want (assuming of course it’s available on whatever platforms you have access to). Additionally, I’ve found that magic tele makes me both more mindful, and more selective about what I watch. When I only had broadcast TV available to me, I frequently used to find myself watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing crap that I didn’t even enjoy. Now, I’m much more thoughtful about what I consume.
In a similar vein we now have “magic music”, so no more listening to the radio for hours hoping they’ll play that song you like, perpetually buying, copying, then returning cassettes; or just shoplifting* them. I have a Spotify subscription which means I can listen to whatever I want, whenever I want. (Yep, another arguably scary company, and one which doesn’t compensate artists fairly). I still have an alarming number of CDs which I still listen to occasionally, but mostly I listen to music through Spotify. I love that you can create and share playlists there too, but I do miss mixtapes. A mixtape involved time, effort, and love - playlists are considerably less labour, and, as such, I don’t value them so highly.
Whilst my phone is frequently on airplane mode (not because I’m on a plane, but because I want peace and quiet), and/or in another room in my flat (away with you distractions); I would be lost (both figuratively, and thanks to google maps, literally) without it.
There are CMS platforms like WordPress which power my website, and allow me, and many others to easily create and maintain our own spaces online. Similarly, there are platforms like Substack which allow me to easily publish this newsletter; and likewise allow others to do the same.
Twitter can be a hellscape (and it’s yet another problematic company), but it’s also a place where I discover the things that a bunch of people I admire are working on, or have themselves discovered and are now sharing. I feel like it’s a space where as long as I curate what I’m seeing, (and don’t spend too much time there) is mostly positive.
I don't use Pinterest as a social network, but I do use it to create swipe files, and it works brilliantly for me (that said, I always have a niggling fear that one day it’ll disappear, and I’ll lose all those things I saved).
*Dear reader, I’d love to be able to tell you that I never shoplifted, but that would be a lie. What can I say, it was the late eighties/early nineties, I was young, and everyone did it. But obviously it’s not ok.
I’m sure there are more examples, but that’ll do for now, right? :)
Looking back through this list, I noticed a recurring theme. I’m unable to fully separate the usefulness of the tech from the tech companies themselves. Whilst I think this is almost certainly a good thing, it leaves me perpetually conflicted. There’s a bunch of technology which I use and value, but at the same time I feel bad about using and valuing these things.
It occurs to me that perhaps tinfoil-hatted-tech-fearing-Negative-Nancy isn’t a role I cast myself in, it’s my conscience speaking.
Thank you so much to the reader who asked me this question - you are aces.
As previously mentioned; I’m happy to have a bash at answering any questions you might have, be they work-related or otherwise. Hit reply to this email, and ask me a question (any question at all!); and I will answer it in a future edition of this newsletter.
Part III: Books I’m Reading Right Now
I’m continuing to make my way through the Booker Prize Longlist, this fortnight it was the turn of The Promise, by Damon Galgut.
The Promise follows the Swarts, a white South African family in the decades before and after the end of apartheid. The novel is divided into four sections, beginning in the mid-1980s, and ending in 2018.
I think that the title refers to “promise” in both senses of the word. A promise is made by Rachel Swart before she dies: to give a house on the farm to their Black servant, Salome. As the novel progresses, each member of the family in turn finds reasons to either deny or defer Salome’s inheritance, and, as such, the promise (or potential) of the next generation of South Africans is shown to be just as compromised as that of their parents.
This is a complex and interesting novel, and Galgut employs stylistic choices which worked for me, but I’d acknowledge probably won’t work for everyone. His narrator occupies an indistinct space, somewhere between first and third person, moving swiftly from tight focus on a single character to a more detached view, often within a single paragraph. Sometimes this jars, but at the same time it brings an otherworldly, or myth-like quality to the storytelling.
I really liked it, but I suspect it will divide readers; if this sounds like your bag, go get your mitts on a copy.
This weekend I took a break from the Booker Prize Longlist to read Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, which is an absolute delight. Shopsin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and part-time cook in her family's New York restaurant. Arbitrary Stupid Goal, is a quirky, non-linear memoir about her unconventional upbringing in the 1980s, in Greenwich Village, New York.
She employs a very loose narrative style, and the book includes both her memories of her family alongside seemingly random interludes like the history of The New York Times crossword puzzle which I found fascinating.
At its heart it’s a love letter to her family, her community, and the Greenwich Village that once was:
“It is easy to cite the bad in the filthy chaos of New York before luxury condos, it is harder to express the spirit, life, and community that the chaos and inefficiency bred.”
The book’s title, “arbitrary stupid goal” refers to her father’s guiding belief:
“A goal that isn’t too important makes you live in the moment, and still gives you a driving force to find ecstasy in the small things, the unexpected, and the everyday.”
Wise words indeed :)
Part IV: Things I’ve Been Watching
I’ve not watched much TV in the last fortnight, so there’s not much to report here; but I did watch The Chair, Netflix; which definitely merits a mention (not least because it caused me to disappear down the glass cliff rabbit hole outlined earlier in this newsletter).
The series is set at the fictional Pembroke College, a liberal arts school where Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) has just become the English department’s first female chair.
But she’s in an incredibly precarious position:
“I don’t feel like I inherited an English department; I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it exploded.”
Ji-Yoon faces obstacle after obstacle as she tries to keep her ailing department together: declining enrollment, systemic sexism and racism, her work flirt Bill who performs an inexplicable Sieg Heil during a lecture (the inciting incident which leads to a nuanced exploration of cancel culture), plus there’s her unravelling home life.
Given the sheer amount squeezed into six episodes which run at just thirty minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking this series sounds like an unholy mess. In some areas perhaps it doesn’t fully succeed, but it’s thought-provoking, there are genuinely tender moments, and Sandra Oh is glorious. I’d definitely recommend watching it.
Part V: Things I’m Doing
I really enjoyed being a part of this event last week. If you weren’t able to join, recordings of all the talks will be live soon, plus you can see the slides I presented here.
I’m doing an in-person thing! On September 8th (that’s next week!) I’ll be running a training course in Brighton, we’ll be following all the appropriate guidelines to ensure everyone is safe, and it is all very exciting indeed.
Here’s a primer to help you figure out if this course might be right for you:
You’ve been tasked with gaining linked coverage on top tier sites like the BBC, the Guardian, USA Today & more; but how on earth do you do that?
Perhaps you’ve seen the success of others, and are wondering why your campaigns languishing, unlinked to and unloved. Or maybe you’ve seen some success but it all seems to be a bit hit and miss, and now you’re now under pressure to deliver results more consistently.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, this is the course for you.
In this course you’ll learn:
What makes a good story from a journalists’ perspective
How to identify compelling topics and gain a deeper understanding of the media landscape
How to come up with ideas
How to figure out whether or not an idea is likely to generate coverage
Whether or not it’s a good idea to remake that campaign that got a bunch of coverage a few years ago
When and how to go about “saving” a struggling campaign, and when it might be best to just move on
& much, much more 🙂
Attendees will leave the course:
With a renewed confidence in their own skills
In a happier and more productive mindset
Feeling rejuvenated and excited about their work
You can find more details on the course, and book your spot here.
That’s all from me for now :)
Do you have a question you’d like me to answer? I’m happy to have a bash at answering any questions you might have, be they work-related or otherwise. Hit reply to this email, and ask me a question (any question at all!); and I will answer it in a future edition of this newsletter.
Finally, if you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing it, and if you would like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee.
PS Wanna find out more about me and my work? Head over to Worderist.com