What is the Glass Cliff, And Why Are Women Being Pushed Off It?

You’ve no doubt heard of the glass ceiling, but have you heard of the glass cliff? It’s even more cynical, and considering we’re in the lead-up to International Women’s Day, I thought we’d explore it.

In 2005, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, two researchers from the University of Exeter published a paper titled: “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” and their thesis was simple… the glass cliff, similar to the outcomes related to the glass ceiling is that women are often appointed to top positions in an organisation in times of crisis, essentially putting them in a position to fail.

While the glass ceiling refers to an unseen - even unspoken - barrier between women and their full potential within an organisation or society, the glass cliff is perhaps even more sinister considering how reality has mirrored the theory in a number of real-life circumstances. The researchers have said that following a 2003 column in the UK’s The Times suggesting that appointing a CEO is detrimental to a company’s share price, prompting them analyse the data on 100 of the largest companies listed on the FSTE100 index. The researchers wanted to know exactly where a company was sitting when they were appointing a new CEO- regardless of their gender; they described the findings exposing “an additional, largely invisible hurdle that women need to overcome in the workplace.”

A report from Vox quotes Alison Cook and Christy Glass, researchers at Utah’s State University, who followed up on the University of Exeter’s paper, a started examining the list of Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period. “White women and men of colour are likelier than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms,” the author states. The report quotes Alison Cook, one of the researchers who said that “when firms are doing poorly, the really qualified white male candidates say, ‘I don’t want to step into this… women and minorities feel like this might be their only shot, so they go ahead and take it.”

A follow-up to the follow-up study came from a 2006 study that found female law students were often being assigned the highest-risk cases, or cases with the highest likelihood of failure. This is in addition to a study from the Academy of Management Perspectives shows that at the center of crisis management, a complete overhaul of the status quo is required to inspire customer and investor confidence once again, and could form a strong enough link to verify the glass cliff in business. Anna Beninger, senior director of research and corporate engagement partner with non-profit organisation Catalyst said “when an organisation is in crisis, women are often seen as being able to come in and take care of a problem… they’re effectively handed the mess to clean up.”

-Marry Barra was appointed as head of General Motors at a time the company was facing widespread criticism for faulty ignition switches and dwindling sales figures.

-Jill Abramson was appointed editor of The New York Times in 2011, branded “a horrible time for newspapers.”

-Jill Soltau became J.C. Penny’s first female CEO at a time the retailer was being massively shaken up by Amazon.

-Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo as its market share was being eroded by Google.

-Anne Mulcahy took the top spot at Xerox when it was $17 billion in debt.

-Theresa May took over the UK’s Prime Ministership directly after the referendum and subsequent drop in the pound sterling.

There’s a number of reasons why the glass cliff could be a very real thing in the world of politics and business. If you put your cynical hat on for just a moment and think about an organisation in some sort of reputational or financial crisis that has just appointed a woman to the helm, it’s hard to doubt that this is an inherently risky position. As such, putting a woman in that position as a ‘saving grace’ allows the company to both take credit for the appointment if it succeeds - and celebrate their progressiveness - but it also gives the board, investors and the media alike a target if the plan doesn’t work out. This allows that company to shift the blame essentially from the failings of the organisation as a whole, to the failings of that woman that wasn’t able to turn the company around.

I don’t want to be too much of a downer for a Wednesday afternoon, but it’s a conversation worth having, particularly in the lead-up to International Women’s Day.


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