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The glass cliff is the phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and female political election candidates, being likelier than men to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.
The term was coined in 2004 by British professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of University of Exeter, United Kingdom. In a study, 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— analogous to the concept of a glass ceiling, but implying the inability to perceive the dangers of the cliff's transparent edge rather than the false promise of elevated organizational positions which can be "seen" through a ceiling of glass but which are actually unattainable. 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. CEO tenure is typically shorter at companies which are struggling, compared to those which are stable.
Evidence of the glass cliff phenomenon has been documented in the field of law. 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.
Other research has failed to confirm the existence of glass cliff phenomenon. A 2007 study of corporate performance preceding CEO appointments showed that women executives are no more likely to be selected for precarious leadership positions than males.
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. These researchers argue that female leaders are not necessarily expected to improve the situation, 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 do not 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 chance they are likely to get.
A 2007 study found that female news consumers in the United Kingdom 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 in-group favoritism. 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 due to having fewer mentors and sponsors and less access to a protective "old boys' network".
However, some researchers argue 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 1990, two female Premiers were appointed in Australia: Joan Kirner inherited significant deficit in Victoria, while Carmen Lawrence headed a party that had previously been accused of corruption. In 2009, Kristina Keneally was appointed Premier of New South Wales amid low polling for her party and their eventual defeat in 2011. Julia Gillard was appointed as Australia's first female prime minister and subsequently ousted amid procedural complaints about the leadership spill.
- In 1993, the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party, facing low approval ratings and almost assured loss in the upcoming general elections, elected Kim Campbell, then Defense Minister, to replace Brian Mulroney as its leader. The election dealt the Progressive Conservatives one of the most devastating defeats in Canadian history, reducing them from 156 seats to 2.
- In 2002, then-unprofitable telecommunications company Lucent Technologies appointed Patricia Russo CEO, and then replaced her with Ben Verwaayen.
- In 2008 after the Icelandic banking crisis, various women were appointed to repair the industry with the rationale that broader perspectives would prevent the same mistakes from occurring.
- In 2011, "a horrible time for newspapers", Jill Abramson was appointed editor of The New York Times, and in 2014 she was fired.
- In 2012, Marissa Mayer was appointed as the CEO of Yahoo after it lost significant marketshare to Google.
- In 2014, General Motors hired Mary Barra as CEO, during a period in which it announced a number of product recalls. (However, the news source which raises this example also states the possible invalidity of glass cliffs and how Barra was warmly welcomed into the position because of merit and talent.)
- In 2015, Ellen Pao resigned amidst controversy after several months as CEO of Reddit. Much of the furore was directed at the firing of popular Reddit employee Victoria Taylor, though former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong revealed that this was the decision of cofounder Alexis Ohanian, not Pao.
- In 2016, Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom shortly after a referendum result to leave the EU caused the pound to drop in value to levels not seen in 30+ years.
- Cooper, Marianne (September 22, 2015). "Why women are often put in charge of failing companies". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved July 11, 2016.
- Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe, How Women End Up on the “Glass Cliff” Harvard Business Review, JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2011
- 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. 16 (2): 81–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x.
- "The Glass Cliff". University of Exeter. Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2015-08-04.
- 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.2013.60.2.168.
- 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.
- Ryan, Michelle K.; Haslam, S. Alexander; Kulich, Clara (March 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. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01541.x.
- Adams, Susan (2009). "Are Female Executives Over-represented in Precarious Leadership Positions?". British Journal of Management. 20 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2007.00549.x.
- 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" (PDF). The Leadership Quarterly. 19 (5): 530–546. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.07.011. hdl:10871/8362. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 December 2013. 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. 96 (3): 470–84. doi:10.1037/a0022133. PMID 21171729.
- 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. 20 (2): 182–197. doi:10.1108/09534810710724748.
- Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (5 August 2008). "The Glass Cliff: Are Women Leaders Often Set Up to Fail?". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Range, Jae Lynn. "No Glass Ceiling for Women? Beware Of The Glass Cliff!".
- Wright, Tony (2010-05-20). "Nobody's girl". Retrieved 2016-08-02.
- Wareham McGrath, Susan. "The Glass Cliff Claims Another Victim – Was Julia Gillard's Fall From Grace Inevitable?". Australian Businesswomen's Network. Archived from the original on 23 May 2014. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Walsh, Kerry-Anne (2014). The Stalking of Julia Gillard. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 9781760110864.
- Simard, Caroline (29 October 2010). "Women in Leadership and the Glass Cliff". Huffington Post. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Sunderland, Ruth. "After the crash, Iceland's women lead the rescue". The Observer. Retrieved May 22, 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.
- Hass, Nancy (2012-07-18). "Marissa Mayer Stares Down 'Glass Cliff' at Yahoo". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
- Oliver Staley, The Marissa Mayer era at Yahoo is officially over qz.com 6/13/2017
- Carson, Biz (July 10, 2015). "Ellen Pao is out at Reddit". Business Insider. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Weinberger, Matt (July 13, 2015). "Former Reddit CEO says Ellen Pao was framed". Business Insider. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Rosoff, Matt (July 14, 2015). "Reddit chief engineer quits after 2 months, says Pao was on a 'glass cliff'". Business Insider. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Sklar, Rachel (July 14, 2015). "3 Undeniable Ways Ellen Pao Was Pushed Off a Glass Cliff at Reddit". Elle. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- McGregor, Jena. "Congratulations, Theresa May. Now mind that 'glass cliff'". Washington Post. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
- Gunter, Barrie. Why Women Should be Taken More Seriously in the Boardroom (Routledge, 2017).
- Oyster, Carol K. "Perceptions of Power: Female Executives’ Descriptions of Power Usage by 'Best' and 'Worst' Bosses." Psychology of Women Quarterly 16.4 (1992): 527-533.
- Ryan, M. K. (2007-09-01). Managing Diversity and the Glass Cliff. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. ISBN 978-1843981909.
- Ryan, M. K.; Schmitt, M. T.; Barreto, M. (2009). The Glass Ceiling in the 21st Century. American Psychological Association. ISBN 978-1-4338-0409-0.
- 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 (2): 81–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x.
- 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 (2): 549–572. doi:10.5465/amr.2007.24351856.
- 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 (5): 530–546. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.07.011. hdl:10871/8362.
- 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 (3): 433–451. doi:10.1348/014466609x466594. PMID 19691915.
- Brescoll, V. L.; Dawson, E.; Uhlmann, E. L. (2010). "Hard won and easily lost: The fragile status of leaders in gender-stereotype-incongruent occupations". Psychological Science. 21 (11): 1640–1642. doi:10.1177/0956797610384744. PMID 20876882.
- 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. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01541.x.
- 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. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2009.00670.x.
- 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 (3): 470–484. doi:10.1037/a0022133. PMID 21171729.
- 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. doi:10.1177/1065912913495740.
- 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.2013.60.2.168.
- 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.
- Vincent, Annette, and Judy Seymour. "Mentoring among female executives." Women in Management Review 9.7 (1994): 15-20.
- Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. "Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?" Harvard Business Review 15 (2012): 80-85. online