On paper, the future looks bright for women in business. Research from Grant Thorton shows major increases in women in senior leadership positions across the past five years. In 2019, only 15% of businesses globally had a female CEO. This has now risen to 28%, and other C-level positions have also seen an increase in female appointees.

Yet even with all of this progress, women in leadership still encounter issues when they attempt to lead their businesses to success. In particular, female leaders appointed in times of crisis can encounter a phenomenon known as the glass cliff.

The Glass Cliff vs The Glass Ceiling

Most people are familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling – a theory of a systemic invisible barrier that prevents women from advancing in their careers. Many aren’t so familiar with the concept of the glass cliff – where, under challenging times, women are often pushed forward to lead and bring change around, often with an impossible task, only to fail and a man brought back in to pick up the pieces.

However, we see more and more examples of women being given positions of leadership and power, and yet being unable to bring about the change needed to turn their organisations around. If we are to move forward and create the diverse and psychologically safe workspaces that so many of us desire, we need to address the glass cliff and the issues it causes in senior management.

What is the glass cliff?

We are inherently more aware of the term glass ceiling in the world of business. The term was first coined by management consultant Marilyn Loden in 1978, and since then, we have had plenty of debate around whether it is still a social issue and the effect that it has had on women of all backgrounds.

The glass cliff is a much more recent term, having been originally coined in a paper by Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam in 2005. Now, nearly 20 years on, there are still few discussions around it, and yet we have seen many female leaders encounter it and fail.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that every time organisations choose to appoint women to positions of power, a glass cliff appears. The glass cliff phenomenon appears in times of uncertainty and crisis.

It is easy to visualise; picture a glass cliff with a prize waiting at the highest point of the cliff edge. Naturally, many people would be nervous to step out and grasp the prize in case the cliff shattered under them. What we tend to see happens is men recognising the danger and pulling back, allowing female candidates to step forward. The danger is still there, and there is every chance that these female leaders will shatter the cliff and fall rather than get the prize.

Bruckmüller and Branscombe’s study of the glass cliff phenomenon

Ryan and Haslam are not the only academics to examine this phenomenon. Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe also researched the glass cliff in their paper: How women end up on the “glass cliff” – a version of which was published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011.

Experiment 1

They first conducted an experiment to see the bias that emerged during times of crisis by creating two histories of a fictional company: one historically headed by men and the other by women. They also created two versions of an article detailing the financial history of the company, successful in one and struggling in the other. The study’s participants were then asked to pick between two candidates for SEO – one male and one female. To help remove bias, they were told that these candidates were just two selected from a wider group.

When the company was led by men and successful, 62% of participants selected the male candidate to be CEO. Yet when the male-led company was in crisis, 69% of the participants selected the female candidate instead.

When the company was led by women, there was no difference in the candidate selected.

The glass cliff simply didn’t exist.

Bruckmüller and Branscombe concluded that organisations create a status quo bias. When men are succeeding in leadership positions, we assume that there is no need to change our patterns. In other words, if it’s not broken, why fix it?

When male leaders have undertaken actions that result in poor performance, a struggling company will only then consider a switch to a woman CEO.

Experiment 2

Bruckmüller and Branscombe then conducted a second experiment to test a hypothesis about how attitudes to gender and leadership created glass cliffs. Participants were asked to read one of two articles discussing the success of a supermarket chain. In one article, the chain was struggling, and in the other, it was very successful. The participants were then given profiles of a male candidate and a female candidate, each seeking to become the replacement CEO of the supermarket chain, and were asked to rate each candidate in strength across 10 attributes.

When the company was doing well, participants preferred more stereotypically male attributes like competitiveness and decisiveness. Stereotypically feminine traits, such as intuition and empathy, were considered to be more desirable in crises.

In fact, 67% of participants chose the man to lead the business when it was successful, and a majority of 63% thought the female leader was the better option for the failing company.

Bruckmüller and Branscombe concluded in their full research paper:

It may not be so important for the glass cliff that women are stereotypically seen as possessing more of the attributes that matter in times of crisis, but rather that men are seen as lacking these attributes and that the attributes that men stereotypically have do not fit with what is perceived as needed in a leader in times of crisis

So, if men are perceived as not having the attributes needed to guide a company through a difficult period, why do we still see women in leadership roles fail when they are promoted in this specific scenario?

It can almost feel like women are being set up to fail. No male leaders want to take on the precarious positions demanded of them in potentially disastrous scenarios, so they feel like it is easier to allow women to step forward, criticising them for then taking different actions and approaches and, in extreme cases, maliciously celebrating the female leader’s failure.

Real-life examples of the glass cliff

It can be easy to explain this away as being just a theory, but the fact is that we have many real-life examples of female leaders encountering issues as they step forward and their male counterparts withdraw. These are just three examples of women in leadership positions who have tumbled from the glass cliff.

Theresa May

It can be argued that all three of the British female prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and Liz Truss – have been put in glass cliff positions in their time in 10 Downing Street. We’ll focus on Theresa May as her leadership during the Brexit talks is the most notable and also showcases her glass cliff most visibly.

After David Cameron resigned following the 2016 Brexit referendum, May was left the sole candidate after leadership opponent Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the final round of party voting. The three male candidates on the ballot also either withdrew or were eliminated, clearly showing the glass cliff in effect as May and Leadsom were propelled forward by the traditionally male Tory voters.

When May took office, she had the monumental task of negotiating a Brexit deal with the European Union. Her proposal was defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202, the largest defeat for a sitting government in the history of parliament and triggering a vote of no confidence in the government from then-Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. In her time as prime minister, she also had to respond to the Manchester Arena terror attack, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and the Windrush scandal amongst many other issues; all being crises that a male prime minister would also scrutinised for if he had had to face them.

After repeated attempts to bring about a Brexit deal, she resigned, leading Boris Johnson to win the next Conservative leader election with his infamous promise to bring about an “oven-ready Brexit deal.”

Linda Yaccarino

Do you know who the CEO of X Corp is? If you think it is Elon Musk, you would be very wrong – it is Linda Yaccarino.

Musk purchased the social media platform then known as Twitter in 2022. Initially after the deal, his company Tesla’s stock plummeted in value to the tune of $100 billion. Twitter’s own stock – or to use its rebranded name of X – has fallen in value by 71% since the purchase. It is a textbook example of a struggling company that could be lifted straight from one of the experiments outlined above.

So, according to the glass cliff theory, in difficult times we see men promote women into top leadership positions. This is exactly what we saw happen at X. In May 2023, Yaccarino was announced as the new chief executive officer of the company.

Experts were instantly concerned that she was placed on a glass cliff. In her tenure as of writing, we have seen an increase in hate speech on the platform and the suspension of advertising from major brands following controversial comments from Musk himself. Yaccarino has been highly criticised in her management of the platform thus far, with Fortune Magazine describing her as “either unable or unwilling to restrain her boss from his worst impulses while failing to reassure advertisers that all is under control.”

Ellen Pao

Ellen Pao is a tech investor who was appointed as the interim CEO of the social network Reddit in 2014. In this time, Reddit banned several subreddits that were found to have violated their terms of service. Though these subreddits did contain harmful content, Reddit users accused Pao of censorship.

A month later, a Reddit employee, Victoria Taylor, was sacked. She oversaw the popular “Ask Me Anything” subreddit and the volunteer moderators of the forum protested her firing. Again, Pao was blamed for the events, and a fresh wave of hate was sent her way.

In both cases, Pao’s role as CEO caused her to become a scapegoat for those angry at the actions of the organisation itself. Not only was the hatred sent her way completely unjustifiable in the first place, but it was also misdirected in the case of Taylor’s dismissal. Years later, it was revealed that Alexis Ohanian, one of Reddit’s co-founders and the then-Executive Chairman, was the one behind the firing.

Pao’s glass cliff position was only temporary, and yet it still shattered under her. The other leaders at Reddit completely failed to protect her or take accountability for their own role in the events, choosing to allow the Reddit community to singularly blame Pao.

Why is the glass cliff problematic?

The glass cliff phenomenon is worth noting in change management since 70% of change initiatives are likely to fail*. Thanks to the glass cliff, it is more likely that women will be the ones in precarious positions heading these attempts at change. When the failure inevitably comes around, blame can be lodged with them.

Next, a male leader might be brought in and set new goals and directions, but the company can still be hailed as progressive because they had their female leader. In more negative scenarios, the appointment of a new male senior director might be seen as his chance to fix the woman’s mistakes (as can be seen in Boris Johnson’s rise after Theresa May’s Brexit failure).

Most worryingly, it can, on occasion, feed into harmful rhetoric that women are not suited for leadership positions. This age-old stereotype has been proved wrong many times over, and female CEOs have thrived even in challenging industries, but the glass cliff brings it to the forefront in a poisonous way.

If promoting women ultimately means that they are being set up to fail and fall from a precarious position, we should not place the blame on them but on the culture of senior leadership currently at play across the corporate world.

What can we learn from the glass cliff for change leadership?

Change is inevitable. No business can succeed without passing through multiple seasons of change. Some may be positive and easy to adapt to, while others may bring the company close to crisis. At both ends of the spectrum and in times of normalcy, strong leadership is needed to guide employees forward.

The glass cliff exists; we have seen it across both controlled research scenarios and real-life examples. The answer is not to remove women from leadership roles but instead look at how we can support them through periods of stress and change.

Let us return to the theme of IWD 2024 – #InspireInclusion.

We must work harder to ensure that women rise to higher positions in business, from board members to chief executives and beyond. Research suggests that companies with a history of female CEOs and leadership do not create glass cliffs.

Our work should be focused on truly fostering diverse boardrooms where women of all backgrounds are well-represented. Give them the chance to have a voice and make decisions, open doors for minority leaders. We need to simultaneously smash the glass ceiling and the glass cliff so we can create an equitable playing field where a woman is welcomed to a senior position and supported in her decisions.

ChangingPoint’s Leadership and Executive Coaching can give women the confidence and skills they need to pursue these higher roles.

We can then also make the commitment to foster workplace diversity and ensure that we create secure positions for women to lead and thrive from, not glass cliffs that could shatter with little force.

Companies that appointed women to leadership roles throughout their history showed us that the glass cliff can be beaten. Give women the tools they need to navigate stressful times and overcome change, and let us move into a more diverse and inclusive world of business.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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