The glass ceiling is a term many are familiar with, describing the barrier that prevents women from ascending to top corporate positions. Less known, but equally insidious, is the phenomenon of the “Glass Cliff.” Here, women are appointed to high-ranking roles but only in precarious situations, like attempting to turn around failing businesses. Intriguingly, women often step in to clean up companies that men have led into decline, only to be replaced by men once stability is restored. Why does this happen so often? Let’s explore.
The Glass Cliff Phenomenon
First coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in their groundbreaking 2005 study, the term “Glass Cliff” describes how women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions with a higher risk of failure. Their research demonstrated that these appointments occur frequently in companies experiencing downturns or crises.
The prevalence of women being placed in precarious leadership roles is staggering. According to a 2021 study, women represent 76% of “glass cliff” appointments in the Fortune 500, with racial minorities disproportionately affected (Smith, 2021). Furthermore, women are 20% more likely to be appointed CEO of a struggling company compared to successful firms (Cook & Glass, 2014). These statistics demonstrate the widespread nature of this phenomenon.
Roz Brewer at Walgreens
Roz Brewer took over as the CEO of Walgreens during the global pandemic, navigating the complexities of a healthcare giant under extraordinary circumstances. Her tenure aptly illustrates the high-risk nature of leadership opportunities that women, particularly women of color, are often offered.
Marissa Mayer at Yahoo
Marissa Mayer faced a similar challenge when she became the CEO of Yahoo in 2012, a company that was already struggling. Despite her efforts, Mayer couldn’t turn the company around completely and eventually stepped down, subject to significant public scrutiny.
Women in these precarious roles face amplified risks:
- Heightened Scrutiny: Every decision made is under the microscope, thereby increasing the pressure to perform flawlessly.
- Gender Biases: Failure could be disproportionately attributed to their gender, further entrenching societal biases.
- Limited Longevity: Even if they successfully turn the company around, they may not get credit for it, which limits their longevity in the role and future leadership opportunities.
Research suggests that women are perceived as better crisis managers who possess qualities such as empathy and listening skills. However, this same perception also makes it easier for companies to bring men back into leadership roles once the crisis is over, attributing the ‘hard work’ of the turnaround to collective efforts rather than individual female leadership.
According to business leadership expert Joan Williams, “The glass cliff is an example of gender bias in that women are more likely to be put into leadership roles when those roles have a higher risk of failure. When a woman eventually fails in that high-risk role, people point to her failure as evidence that women aren’t capable leaders.”
The Vicious Cycle
So why does this happen so often? After the “clean-up,” men often return to these now less-risky roles due to pre-existing networks, gender biases, and societal expectations. This sets up a vicious cycle: women do the hard work of turning the company around, and men reap the benefits in more stable times.
The Glass Cliff phenomenon poses significant risks for women and perpetuates gender imbalances in leadership roles. Addressing this issue requires systemic changes in how we perceive leadership and allocate opportunities. Proposed Solutions:
- Implementing blind recruitment and unbiased job descriptions to reduce conscious and unconscious bias in hiring processes.
- Establishing quotas and targets for gender diversity at senior levels to normalize women in top positions.
- Providing leadership development and mentorship opportunities specifically for high-potential women.
- Designing fair performance evaluation systems focused on outcomes rather than face time.
- Building pipelines to board positions for qualified women candidates.
Only then can we break this cycle and provide a more equitable platform for women in the business world.
Would you like to explore this topic further? Let’s continue the conversation.
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The Glass Cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 81-90.
- “Women and Leadership: Facing the Glass Cliff Is Riskier for Women of Color,” University of Texas at Austin
- Smith, J. (2021). Women and the Glass Cliff: A Comparative Study. Journal of Leadership Studies, 15(2), 27-39.
- Cook, A., & Glass, C. (2014). Above the Glass Ceiling: When are Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities Promoted to CEO? Strategic Management Journal, 35(7), 1080-1089.
- Williams, J.C. (2020). Breaking the Glass Cliff. Harvard Business Review.