The glass cliff is a term that was first coined by two British professors called Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam, of the University of Exeter, who presented the theory that women are more likely to be put into leadership roles during times of crisis to take the blame for a company’s downfall.
According to the professors women achieve roles, such as executives in the corporate world or political candidates, when the chance of failure for the organisation is highest. The glass cliff is used to evoke the image of danger, which involves exposure to risk of falling, but is not readily apparent.
Ryan and Haslam conducted a study where they examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members. They concluded that companies that had experienced consistently bad performance, in the proceeding five months, were found to be appointing women to their boards.
Their research aimed to give an insight into the difference experiences of men and women in leadership roles. The study found that once women have broken through the more commonly know “glass ceiling” they are more likely to be appointed to high risk roles because their organisation is in crisis or because they are not given enough support or access to resources needed to succeed.
According to professor Kristin J. Anderson companies may offer such positions to women because they are viewed as being “more expendable and better scapegoats.” Anderson suggests that companies are in a good position if the woman appointed succeeds or fails, because if she fails the company is no worse off and can be blamed for the downfall, but if she is successful the company is given credit for being progressive with its appointment of a woman in a leadership role. Either way the company can then return to appointing men into senior positions.
What are some examples of glass cliff appointments?
The media have identified several notable examples of the glass cliff phenomenon.
For example, in 2002 the telecoms giant Lucent Technologies gave Patricia Russo the role of CEO, to later replace her with Ben Verwaayen after she had returned the company to profitability.
2011 was described as “a horrible time for newspapers” widely by the media. In the same year Jill Abramson gained the position of editor at the New York Times to later be fired in 2014.
General Motors decided to appoint Mary Barra as CEO in 2014. This was during the same period that the company was undergoing several product recalls.
A notable example in the technology sector was when Marissa Mayer was appointed as Yahoo’s CEO right after the company had lost significant market share to competitor Google.
Furthermore, several women were offered and appointed prominent roles after the Icelandic banking crisis in 2008. The women were given the task of repairing the industry and finding a way to prevent the same mistakes from occurring again in the future.
Why do women accept risky glass cliff roles?
According to Haslam women in senior positions are more likely than men to accept high risk roles, that are considered to be glass cliff positions, because they lack “high-quality” information and support” that would usually warn executives away from such risky career moves.
Professors Ali Cook and Christy Glass, of Utah State University, believe that women and minorities are more likely to accept risky roles because they think it is the only chance they will get.
In 2007 a survey of UK news consumers found that females were more likely to accept that glass cliff exists, which is “dangerous and unfair” to women. Female respondents said they believe the glass cliff exists because of a lack of other opportunities for women executives, along with sexism and a male “ingroup favouritism”.
A similar report concluded that women are less likely to be given second chances once they have failed, due to women having access to fewer mentors and sponsors. In addition women were believed to have less access to the protective “old boys” club.
Meet some of the women paving the way for women in leadership roles
Inspirational woman: Jacqueline de Rojas | Executive at Citrix, board champion for women at techUK
Inspirational Woman: Sheila Flavell | COO & part-owner of FDM Group
Inspirational Woman: Baroness Mary Goudie
Inspirational Woman: Cherie Blair | Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women