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The glass cliff is a term that describes the phenomenon of women executives in the corporate world being likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. It has been extensively documented and studied.
The term was coined in 2004 by British professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam of University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Ryan and Haslam examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members, and found that companies that appointed women to their boards were likelier than others to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months. This work eventually developed into the identification of a phenomenon known as the glass cliff. Since the term originated, its use has expanded beyond the corporate world to also encompass politics and other domains.
Ryan and Haslam's research showed that once women break through the glass ceiling and take on positions of leadership they often have experiences that are different from those of their male counterparts. More specifically, women are more likely to occupy positions that are precarious and thus have a higher risk of failure — either because they are appointed to lead organizations (or organizational units) that are in crisis or because they are not given the resources and support needed for success.
Extending the metaphor of the glass ceiling, Ryan and Haslam evoked the notion of the ‘glass cliff’ to refer to a danger which involves exposure to risk of falling but which is not readily apparent. "It therefore appears that after having broken through a glass ceiling women are actually more likely than men to find themselves on a "glass cliff", meaning their positions of leadership are risky or precarious." CEO tenure is typically shorter at companies which are struggling, compared to those which are stable.
The glass cliff concept has also been used to describe employment discrimination experienced by leaders who are members of minorities or disabled.
Evidence of the glass cliff phenomenon has been documented in business, politics, law, public service, education and sport. A 2006 study found law students were much likelier to assign a high-risk case to a female lead counsel rather than a male one. A 2010 study found undergraduate students in British political science likelier to select a male politician to run for a safe seat in a by-election, and much likelier to select a female candidate when the seat was described as hard to get.
Many theories have been advanced to explain the existence of the glass cliff.
University of Houston psychology professor Kristin J. Anderson says companies may offer glass cliff positions to women because they consider women "more expendable and better scapegoats." She says the organizations that offer women tough jobs believe they win either way: if the woman succeeds the company is better off. If she fails the company is no worse off, she can be blamed, the company gets credit for having been egalitarian and progressive, and can return to its prior practice of appointing men.
Haslam and Ryan say their studies show that people believe women are better-suited to lead stressed, unhappy companies because they are felt to be more nurturing, creative and intuitive. Female leaders are not necessarily expected to improve the situation, Ryan and Haslam argue, but are seen as good people managers who can take the blame for organizational failure.
Haslam has said that women executives are likelier than men to accept glass cliff positions because they don't have access to the high-quality information and support that would ordinarily warn executives away. Utah State University professors Ali Cook and Christy Glass say women and other minorities view risky job offers as the only change they're likely to get.
A 2007 study found female news consumers in the UK were likelier than male ones to accept that the glass cliff exists and is dangerous and unfair to women executives. Female study participants attributed the existence of the glass cliff to a lack of other opportunities for women executives, sexism, and men's ingroup favouritism. Male study participants said that women are less suited than men to difficult leadership roles or strategic decision-making, or that the glass cliff is unrelated to gender.
Implications for women executives
Glass cliff positions risk hurting the women executives' reputations and career prospects, because when a company does poorly people tend to blame its leadership without taking into account situational or contextual variables. Researchers have found that female leaders find it harder than male ones to get second chances once they have failed, because they have fewer mentors and sponsors and less access to a protective "old boys' network."
Some researchers argue, however, that companies in bad situations offer more opportunity for power and influence compared with companies that are stable.
News media have described the following as examples of the glass cliff.
- In 1993 the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party, facing low approval ratings and almost assured loss in the upcoming general elections, appointed Kim Campbell, then Defense Minister, to replace Brian Mulroney as its leader.
- In 1998 then-struggling toys retailer Toys R Us appointed Asian American executive Robert Nakasone CEO, and then reinstated former CEO Michael Goldstein once the company returned to stability.
- In 1999 as the tech bubble was bursting, Hewlett-Packard appointed Carly Fiorina CEO, and then ousted her in 2005.
- In 2002 then-unprofitable telecommunications company Lucent Technologies appointed Patricia Russo CEO, and then replaced her with Ben Verwaayen after she returned the company to profitability.
- In 2011, "a horrible time for newspapers," Jill Abramson was appointed editor of the New York Times, and in 2014 she was fired.
- In 2014, General Motors hired Mary Barra as CEO, during a period in which it announced a number of product recalls. 
- The hiring of Janet Yellen to head the US Federal Reserve
- The appointment of various women to clean up the Icelandic banking industry after the 2008 crisis 
- The appointment of Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence as state premiers in Australia; the appointment and subsequent ousting of Julia Gillard as Australia's first female prime minister
- The hiring and firing of Ina Drew as CIO at Morgan Chase and a range of other female banking executives
- The appointment of Marissa Mayer at Yahoo
- Julia Pierson, the first female Director of the United States Secret Service, resigned after a White House security breach.
Michelle Ryan is Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology in the College of Life Sciences at the University of Exeter.
Alex Haslam is Professor of Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland and former editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology.
In 2005 Ryan and Haslam's research into the glass cliff was shortlisted for the Times Higher Education's Research Project of the Year. It also featured in New York Times Magazine's Top 100 Ideas of 2008. Their research into the glass cliff has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the European Social Fund, and the Economic and Social Research Council.
- Ryan, Michelle K., and S. Alexander Haslam (9 February 2005). "The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions". British Journal of Management. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- The Glass Cliff
- The Glass Cliff
- BBC NEWS | Magazine | Introducing... the glass cliff
- McCullough, DG (8 August 2014). "Women CEOs: Why companies in crisis hire minorities - and then fire them". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Cook, A., A.; Glass, C. "Glass Cliffs and Organizational Saviors: Barriers to Minority Leadership in Work Organizations?". Social Problems 60 (2): 168–187. doi:10.1525/sp.2013.11147.
- Ashby, Julie S.; Haslam, S. Alexander; Ryan, Michelle K. (Fall 2006). "Legal work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases". William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Haslam, S. Alexander; Kulich, Clara; Ryan, Michelle K. (March 2010). "Politics and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women Are Preferentially Selected to Contest Hard-to-Win Seats". Psychology of Women Quarterly. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01541.x. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Rivers, Caryl, and Rosalind C. Barnett (2 November 2013). "When Wall Street Needs Scapegoats, Women Beware". Women's eNews. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Haslam, S. Alexander and Michelle K. Ryan (2008). "The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organizations". The Leadership Quarterly. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.07.011. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Ryan, Michelle K.; Haslam, S. Alexander; Hersby, Mette D.; Bongiorno, Renata (May 2011). "Think crisis-think female: the glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype". Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0022133. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Trop, Jaclyn. "Is Mary Barra standing on a glass cliff?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Ryan, Michelle K., and S. Alexander Haslam, Tom Postmes (2007). "Reactions to the glass cliff: Gender differences in the explanations for the precariousness of women's leadership positions". Journal of Organizational Change Management. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (5 August 2008). "The Glass Cliff: Are Women Leaders Often Set Up to Fail?". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Simard, Caroline (29 October 2010). "Women in Leadership and the Glass Cliff". Huffington Post. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Kurzleben, Danielle (May 14, 2014). "What happened to Jill Abramson shows everything that sucks about being a woman leader". Vox.com. Retrieved May 15, 2014.
- Salas Gage, Caroline. "Yellen Poised to Rival Obama With Financial Power". Bloomberg. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Sunderland, Ruth. "After the crash, Iceland's women lead the rescue". The Observer. Retrieved May 22, 2014.
- Range, Jae Lynn. "No Glass Ceiling for Women? Beware Of The Glass Cliff!".
- Wareham McGrath, Susan. "The Glass Cliff Claims Another Victim – Was Julia Gillard’s Fall From Grace Inevitable?". Australian Businesswomen's Network. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Covert, Bryce. "Was JP Morgan Chase's CIO Ina Drew Pushed Off the Glass Cliff?". Forbes. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Goudreau, Jenna. "With JPMorgan Chase's Ina Drew Out, Few Top Wall Street Women Left Standing". Forbes. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- Hass, Nancy. "Marissa Mayer Stares Down ‘Glass Cliff’ at Yahoo". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Covert, Bryce. "Secret Service Director Julia Pierson Was a Victim of the "Glass Cliff"". The New Republic. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
- Wilson-Kovacs, Dana (2008). Disability & Society 23 (7): 705–717. doi:10.1525/sp.2013.11147.
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The Glass Cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90.
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2007). The Glass Cliff: Exploring the dynamics surrounding the appointment of women precarious leadership positions. Academy of Management Review, 32, 549-572.
- Haslam, S. A., & Ryan, M. K. (2008). The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organizations. Leadership Quarterly, 19, 530-546.
- Bruckmüller, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 433-451.
- Brescoll, V. L., Dawson, E., and Uhlmann, E. L. (2010). Hard won and easily lost: The fragile status of leaders in gender-stereotype-incongruent occupations. Psychological Science, 21, 1640-1642.
- Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Kulich, C. (2010). Politics and the glass cliff: Evidence that women are preferentially selected to contest hard-to-win seats. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 56–64.
- Haslam, S. A., Ryan, M. K., Kulich, C., Trojanowski, G., & Atkins, C. (2010). Investing with prejudice: The relationship between women’s presence on company boards and objective and subjective measures of company performance. British Journal of Management, 21, 484-497.
- Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M. D. & Bongiorno, R. (2011). Think crisis–think female: The glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager–think male stereotype. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 470-484.
- Kulich, C., Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). The Political Glass Cliff: Understanding How Seat Selection Contributes to the Underperformance of Ethnic Minority Candidates. Political Research Quarterly, 67(1), 84-95.
- Cook, A., & Glass, C. (2014). Women and Top Leadership Positions: Towards an Institutional Analysis. Gender, Work & Organization, 21(1), 91-103. doi:10.1111/gwao.12018
- Cook, A., & Glass, C. (2013). Glass Cliffs and Organizational Saviors: Barriers to Minority Leadership in Work Organizations?. Social Problems, 60(2), 168-187. doi:10.1525/sp.2013.11147
- Wilson-Kovacs, D., Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., & Rabinovich, A. (2008). 'Just because you can get a wheelchair in the building doesn't necessarily mean that you can still participate': barriers to the career advancement of disabled professionals. Disability & Society, 23(7), 705-717. doi:10.1080/09687590802469198