In the fight against sexism, Hillary Clinton may soon find out that breaking the glass ceiling is only the beginning

Many rivers to cross.
Many rivers to cross.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Hillary Clinton may break the ultimate glass ceiling in November. But should she win the US election, she’ll have another big fight waiting for her in the Oval Office.

Unfortunately, the experiences of female CEOs and other women leaders suggest that Clinton should be prepared for a major backlash. Research suggests that women who manage to ascend to top-ranking positions often find themselves facing highly unrealistic expectations.

One of my colleagues, Arizona State University management professor Christine Shropshire, recently found that female CEOs are 27% more likely than their male counterparts to face antagonistic activist investors when they take the reins. She attributes the difference in part to traditional notions of gender roles and characteristics. Female leaders are typically seen as “interactive, collaborative and engagement-oriented, while male leadership is typically categorized as authoritative and powerful,” she says.  Because inventors may see women as easier to influence or bully, female CEOs tend to be targets.

Moreover, because of the nature of this election, Clinton may well find herself teetering on the “glass cliff”—a term coined by two psychology professors at the University of Exeter in the UK.

The glass cliff theory posits that many women leaders get the job only when an organization (or in this case, a country) is already on the skids. They’re expected to stave off disaster—which often positions them for failure, and the ax, when they fail to save their troubled enterprise. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Mary Barra at General Motors and Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard are high-profile examples of this phenomenon.

The unusually toxic nature of this election, and many Americans’ hostile reaction to Donald Trump, suggests that many voters in November will opt for Clinton only to ward off the crisis of a Trump presidency. Therefore, the moment she makes a misstep in office, a torrent of doubters will announce their conviction that she is not—and never really was—capable of leading.

All this is worrisome not just for Clinton’s sake, but for the sake of all women looking to achieve leadership positions in both the corporate and political worlds. Just 5% of Fortune 1000 companies employ female CEOs, and women’s representation on Fortune 500 boards hovers around a paltry 15%.

As a business school dean, I’m attuned to the fact that only one out of every three applicants to MBA programs are female, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. The percentage of women enrolling in MBA programs nationally has risen several percentage points over the last few years, from 32.3% in 2011 to 36.2% in 2015. But the lingering disproportion underscores the continuing pressure that those who enter this male-dominated world will inevitably experience, from both their fellow employees and from outsiders.

I’d like to imagine that a female president would improve the fortunes of other women seeking their own advancements. But recent history suggests that Clinton’s ascendancy could exacerbate the challenges women face, at least in the near term.

We need look no further than to our current president, Barack Obama, to make this case. The counterpoint to the election of our first African-American president has been increased racial tensions, propelled by those who resent his success. The same phenomenon could well lead to a short-term spike in sexism from those who feel threatened by a woman with so much power.

Yet there is reason for hope. Clinton would inevitably face challenges in office, including an avalanche of criticism. But the way she handles them might well serve as a road map—not only for other female politicians considering the climb, but for all the working women wondering whether there is room for them in business and the board room.