What Is the Glass Cliff?

Glass cliff is a phenomenon that refers to the tendency for women to be appointed or elected to leadership positions in times of crisis or challenge, when the risk of failure is high.

According to a report from McKinsey & Company, women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are higher risk and  have lower odds of success. The glass cliff is so named because it represents a situation where women are placed in positions with high risk of failure, similar to being on the edge of a cliff. In these situations, women may be appointed to leadership positions with less support or resources than their male counterparts and may be expected to take on more risk in their decision-making.

History of the Term Glass Cliff

The concept of the glass cliff was first introduced by researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in a 2005 study published in the British Journal of Management. The study analyzed the appointments of women to leadership positions in the corporate world and found that women were more likely to be appointed to leadership roles during times of crisis when the risk of failure was high. The term glass cliff was inspired by the concept of the glass ceiling, referring to the invisible barriers that prevent women from advancing in their careers.

Why Do Women End Up on the Glass Cliff?

When organizations face crises, they tend to change leadership. At that point, women have a greater chance of becoming a leader because it is often argued that women lead better in a crisis.  Women end up on the glass cliff for several reasons. Here are a few.

  • Stereotypes and biases. Stereotypes and biases about women and their leadership abilities can lead decision-makers to view women as better suited for leadership roles in times of crisis when there is a perceived need for a more nurturing or empathetic leadership style. This can place women in high-risk leadership positions where the likelihood of failure is greater.
  • Limited opportunities. Women are often underrepresented in leadership positions, which can result in a limited pool of qualified candidates when a leadership position becomes available. This can lead to women being appointed to leadership roles in difficult circumstances, such as during a crisis.
  • Expectations and norms. Women in leadership positions are often expected to display certain traits and behaviors, such as being collaborative and consensus-building. These expectations can make it more difficult for women to assert their authority and make unpopular decisions, which can further increase their risk of failure in high-pressure situations.
  • Lack of support and resources.  Women in leadership positions may not receive the same level of support or resources as their male counterparts, which can make it more difficult for them to succeed in high-pressure situations. This can include a lack of mentorship, limited access to funding or resources and fewer opportunities for professional development.

Impacts of the Glass Cliff

Though women are mostly impacted by the glass cliff phenomenon, there are definitely negative impacts for the organization and all of its employees.  Glass cliff also perpetuates gender inequalities in leadership roles. Here are a few specific impacts of the glass cliff phenomenon.

Decreased Motivation and Job Satisfaction

Women who are appointed to leadership roles on the glass cliff may feel a sense of isolation and lack of support, which can lead to decreased motivation and job satisfaction. This can have negative impacts on their performance and the overall success of the organization. When employees don’t feel supported and engaged by their team, they can become dissatisfied with their jobs. Sometimes they may even resign prematurely. An example of this is Liz Truss, the shortest serving British Prime Minister.

Missed Opportunities for Diversity & Inclusion

When women are appointed to leadership roles on the glass cliff, it can be a missed opportunity for organizations to promote diversity and inclusion. By limiting the pool of qualified candidates to those perceived as being able to handle high-pressure situations, organizations may miss out on qualified candidates who could bring new perspectives and approaches to leadership.

Organizational Instability

The glass cliff phenomenon can contribute to organizational instability, as the appointment of a leader who is perceived to be at high risk of failure can lead to uncertainty and instability within the organization. The glass cliff can have negative impacts on an organization’s financial performance. Often companies that appointed women to CEO positions during times of crisis have lower stock returns than companies that appointed men to similar positions.

Negative Employer Brand

Negative media affects the organization both internally and externally.

Women who are appointed to leadership positions on the glass cliff are more likely to face negative media coverage than men in similar positions. Negative press is bad for the employer brand because organizations’ stock value starts to decrease, which will cause them to lose investors and customers.

Negative media coverage can make it more difficult for an employer to attract new employees, particularly if the coverage is related to workplace issues. Prospective employees may be hesitant to join an organization that has a negative reputation or that they perceive as being unsafe or unwelcoming.

Strategies to Mitigate the Glass Cliff

There are several strategies that organizations can use to mitigate the glass cliff phenomenon and promote more equitable opportunities for women. Organizations should promote diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) as a part of operational practices and culture. DEIB awareness is helpful to help mitigate the glass cliff, but companies should include other practices as well.

Foster a Culture of Inclusion

An underlying cause of the glass cliff is a lack of diversity and inclusivity in leadership roles. By fostering a culture of inclusion and actively seeking out diverse perspectives and experiences, organizations can create more equitable opportunities for all employees.

Provide Equal Access to Leadership Development Opportunities

Women and minorities are often excluded from leadership development opportunities, which can make it more difficult for them to reach senior leadership roles. By providing equal access to leadership development opportunities, organizations can help to build a more diverse and inclusive leadership pipeline.

Conduct Bias Training

Unconscious bias can often impact hiring and promotion decisions, leading to the glass cliff phenomenon. By conducting bias training for all employees involved in hiring and promotion decisions, organizations can help mitigate these biases and promote more equitable outcomes.

Implement Objective Hiring and Promotion Criteria

To reduce the impact of subjective biases, organizations should implement objective hiring and promotion criteria that focus on skills and qualifications rather than subjective factors such as fit or likeability.

Provide Support to Leaders on the Glass Cliff

Leaders who are appointed to roles on the glass cliff may face additional challenges and scrutiny and may benefit from additional support and resources. By providing support such as mentorship, coaching and networking opportunities, organizations can help set these leaders up for success.

Monitor and Address Negative Media Coverage

Organizations should be proactive in monitoring media coverage related to their leaders, particularly those on the glass cliff. If negative coverage does occur, organizations should take swift and decisive action to address the underlying issues and communicate transparently with employees and customers.