The Glass Cliff – A Double-Edge Sword of Crisis Leadership for Women and Minorities

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The glass cliff phenomenon refers to a trend in which women and other underrepresented groups are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions during times of crisis or when the organization is in a precarious situation. This trend is called the “glass cliff” because these individuals are often placed in leadership roles where the risk of failure is high, similar to walking along the edge of a cliff.

the glass cliff

Research has shown that the glass cliff phenomenon occurs for several reasons. One reason is that in times of crisis, organizations may feel a sense of urgency to make changes, and may be more willing to take risks on leaders who are seen as different or unconventional. Additionally, there may be a perception that women and other underrepresented groups possess certain traits, such as empathy and collaborative skills, that are important for managing a crisis.

However, this trend is problematic because these leaders may be set up to fail, and their failures may be attributed to their gender or other aspects of their identity rather than the circumstances they were put in. The glass cliff phenomenon can also reinforce stereotypes and create a perception that women and other underrepresented groups are less capable of leading in stable or successful situations.

By now everyone is familiar with the glass ceiling—the informal barrier that keeps women out of upper management. In the past few years, researchers have found that women have a better chance of breaking through that ceiling when an organization is facing a crisis—thus finding themselves on what Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, of the University of Exeter, have termed the “glass cliff.” But the question remains why.

The glass cliff is a relative of the “glass ceiling” — a metaphor for the invisible, societal barrier that keeps women from achieving the highest positions in business, politics, and organizations. The glass cliff is a twist on that: Women are elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly. When they reach the upper ranks of power, they’re put into precarious positions and therefore have a higher likelihood of failure, meaning there’s a greater risk for them to fall.

And it’s not just a phenomenon reserved for women; it happens with minority groups, too.

When the going gets rough, organizations look for a change of pace and often believe they find it in someone who isn’t their typical executive — in other words, someone who isn’t a white man.

“When an organization is in crisis, women are often seen as being able to come in and take care of a problem,” Anna Beninger, senior director of research and corporate engagement partner at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on promoting women in business. “They’re effectively handed the mess to clean up.”

Sometimes these situations work out, and the women put in charge are successful in orchestrating a turnaround and righting the ship. Often, however, they don’t.

Similar findings have been observed within both the business and the sporting realms. In an analysis of Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year window Cook and Glass (2014a) demonstrated that, compared to White men, members of occupational minorities (i.e., Black men and Black and White women) are more likely to be promoted to CEO positions in firms that are experiencing a decline in performance. 

Overall, the glass cliff phenomenon highlights the need for organizations to examine their hiring and promotion practices to ensure that all candidates are given equal opportunities to succeed and that leaders are not appointed based on stereotypes or assumptions about their abilities.

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