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Is Dame Sharon heading for the Glass Cliff?

Dame Sharon White (Ofcom/PA) (PA Media)
Dame Sharon White (Ofcom/PA) (PA Media)

The Glass Ceiling is the social barrier that prevents women from landing the very top jobs. Lately, and not before time, the ceiling has been punctured.

There’s still aren’t enough top women bosses, but we’re going the right way.

The next issue is what academics call the Glass Cliff. Here the idea is that women get the top job at an organisation that was already failing.

When they fail to rescue it, the Glass Cliff is what they fall off. Men in the same situation get the chance of another top job – after all, they joined a business that was already in trouble and made the best of it. Women don’t.

One wonders if there is a risk of this playing out for Sharon White at John Lewis.

The partnership owned retailer is under all sorts of pressure. The sorts of issues that blighted other shops for years have finally caught up with the department stores and with Waitrose.

Dame Sharon has proposed some fairly radical solutions to this, including the notion that she could sell a chunk of the company to outside shareholders to raise capital the business plainly needs.

Staff and industry veterans were furious. Didn’t White get what this business was all about? Other experts have cropped up to offer platitudes about JLP returning to “its core ethos” of putting customers first, as if it were that simple, as it if weren’t already doing that.

One take is that White is having to shove through changes that previous (male) executives ignored or avoided, while they basked in the certainty that upper-middle class England loved the brand so much they would continue to shop there in the face of any number of credit crunch’s or booms in inflation.

This turns out to have been false confidence.

So now it is up to her, and she’s a ready-made scapegoat if saving the partnership turns out to be even more difficult than it looks (This isn’t White’s spin I should say, I haven’t spoken to her on this).

Still, next time we read that staff or “experts” think she is getting it wrong, perhaps we should at least ask why her predecessors didn’t do any of the things she now feels forced to do.