What Is the Glass Cliff?

By: Together Abroad 03-10-2016

Categories:** HR Diversity Management,
The Glass Cliff and the Employment Process

The term “glass cliff” refers to an idea that women are more likely to receive top-tier or CEO positions at organizations during times of crisis or (financial) turmoil. It was developed roughly a decade ago, as a result of research carried out by professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter. It is a trend that apparently occurs in both business and politics.

A 2015 study published in The Leadership Quarterly studied the appointment of CEOs to Fortune 500 companies. The study found that women are statistically much more likely to be appointed during times of crisis, and much less likely to be appointed during times of financial success. This often leads to said women being held responsible for the issues faced by an organization, even if these issues developed prior to her promotion or appointment. A Forbes Article, titled ‘The 'Glass Cliff' Phenomenon That Senior Female Leaders Face Today And How To Avoid It’ makes the same point.

A lot of discussion surrounds this subject. It can be debated whether this is a forum of using women as a scapegoat, thus a form of misogyny; or whether it is rather an attempt at rebranding a company, and providing it with a new face. Recently, some articles questioned whether Theresa May’s becoming Britain’s new prime minister is another example that supports the existence of the glass cliff — since she is taking up the office in a time when the UK is facing the Brexit crisis. Though there is not enough precedent of female prime ministers in Britain to be able to assess whether this is part of a reoccurring political trend.

Nevertheless, the glass cliff is widely held to be a real trend. The University of Exeter dedicates a department to the study of the phenomenon, and there is a wide range of academic studies available on the subject.

Facing the Glass Cliff

The Internet contains many articles that aim to tell women how to avoid the glass cliff, or at least see it coming. Such articles include the above-mentioned Forbes article, as well as an article published by Fast Company titled “How Women and Minority Leaders Can Avoid the Glass Cliff” for instance. It is unclear who exactly is at fault for the occurrence of this trend.

According to these guides, avoiding the glass cliff can be done by increasing your understanding of your own capabilities, and the organization you work for. So, they advise, women need to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand when they are truly qualified for a position they are being offered, or whether it may be presented to them with ulterior motives. Being aware of how the organization they are employed by is performing can also help them know if they are being offered a certain position in a time of trouble.

Although the reasons for the occurrence of the glass cliff phenomenon likely lie beyond the actions of individual women, there may be value in this advice. Aiming to familiarize yourself with your employer, or learning to assess your own efficiency as an employee, is likely a good idea. As such, this may be advice worth listening to. Regardless of whether you ever come to face the glass cliff, learning to look out for it may make you a better worker.

Barbara Haenen