You’ve Heard of the “Glass Cliff” — Here’s What it Really Means

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
May 23, 2024 at 11:56AM UTC

Women aren't quite as concerned with the glass ceiling as they once were. Don't get me wrong—gender inequality in the workplace is still rife.

While women aged 16 and over had represented 46.9% of the total labor force in 2018 (which means that 57.1% of women participate in the labor force, compared to 69.1% of men), according to Catalyst research, they're neither paid fairly nor afforded equal opportunities to their male counterparts.

Still, American women earn just about than 80 percent as much as their male counterparts, which means that they take home just $0.85 for every male dollar. And they're not occupying nearly as many leadership positions. According to research from Lean and McKinsey & Company, one in five women are often the only females in meetings or other situations at work — a statistic that nearly doubles for women in senior-level positions, 40% of whom report flying being alone amongst all men. In fact, female Fortune 500 CEOs are at the helm of just 25 companies on the list.

And it's not because they're unqualified, and it's not because they don't ask. A wealth of research suggests that women are just as competent as men, and they do indeed ask for raises just as much.

But, nevertheless, systematic sexism — rooted in unfounded preconceived notions of women's place and abilities — continues to hold women back in the workplace.

Fortunately, women are indeed shattering the glass ceiling more and more, forging their way into leadership roles like never before. But the glass ceiling isn't the biggest issue they're facing anymore — rather, the glass cliff is what's crushing their success.

What is the glass cliff?

So what is the glass cliff, and why is the glass cliff a problem? The glass cliff refers to the hurdle that women face when they do finally shatter the glass ceiling.

It's a phenomenon that occurs when companies hire women for leadership roles (think: corporate executives or female politicals), but they're really only likelier than men to achieve those leadership roles because it's during a period of crisis or downturn. Of course, that's when the chance of failure is at its highest, and many others don't want to assume that leadership position because, not only does the responsibility of turning the tables fall on them, but, often, as does the blame for the mayhem in the first place.

Why does the glass cliff happen?

"The psychology of what predicates the positioning of women leaders in times of crisis is complex, but ultimately not too challenging to understand," writes Lydia Dishman of Fast Company. "According to [research from the Academy of Management], crisis management is nearly always tied to changing the entire way leadership is operating. If a man was previously in the role, the most radical shift would be to install a woman chief to lead the company in crisis away from the traditional way it’s been managed previously. This visible break not only signals a new way forward but also plays into gender stereotypes. The idea of a 'female advantage' in these situations comes from research that found women self-report a different type of decision making than their male counterparts. Women say they’re more democratic, participative and consensus-seeking, traits that are more associated with managing through change. Men, on the other hand, are associated with stability. This more closely ties women with leading during times of crisis."

The glass cliff in 2021

Women are being promoted now more than ever, during a time of crisis.
In fact, in a study that asked respondents whether they would choose a female or male CEO of a company that was either doing well or struggling, 63% agreed that a woman should take over if the company was doing poorly. They thought so  because they believed that such a company would need "female skills" like communication and the ability to encourage others. Meanwhile, 67% would choose a male CEO to head a successful company. And this isn't just in theory. During a time when the stock market was on the decline, companies that appointed women as board members were more likely to have performed poorly in the preceding five months than those that appointed men.
While the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the globe and the economy takes a hit, many companies are indeed in crisis. Sure, many tech companies are in a good place to innovate and come up with solution's to today's challenges. But promoting women now means that they're faced with navigating those unique challenges. And, yet, that's precisely what's happening.

What is the origin of the class cliff?

Researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter first coined the term in 2005. They were responding to a report in the U.K.’s Times that suggested that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on the board" after an analysis of the performance of 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange. The article suggested that the women were underperforming and, therefore, not cut out for their leadership positions.
Ryan and Haslam, however, didn't buy it. So they conducted their own study on the same 100 companies. What they found was eyeopening. The results suggested that, only during a period of overall stock‐market decline, that's when women were more consistently appointed to boards. Ultimately, companies were more likely to hire women only after they'd experienced bad performance in the preceding five months.
“These results expose an additional, largely invisible, hurdle that women need to overcome in the workplace,” the researchers wrote.
The research didn't stop there.
Another study published in the Harvard Business Review asked participants to select a male or female leader, both of whom had identical qualifications. Susanne Bruckmüller, a research associate at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and Nyla R. Branscombe, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, conducted the experiment. They found that 67% chose the male leader when the company was doing well, while 63% elected the female leader when the company was in crisis.
Researchers Alison Cooke and Christy Glass of Utah State University took their study, published in the Strategic Management Journal, a step further by analyzing all Fortune 500 CEO transitions over a 15‐year period.
“Consistent with the theory of the glass cliff, we find that occupational minorities — defined as white women and men and women of color — are more likely than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms,” the researchers wrote of their findings. Their tenure length wasn’t too different from that of white male CEOs, but white men were likely to replace these leaders.
And a 2013 PwC report found that, though the number of women who are CEOs at large companies is indeed growing, there are more female leaders who are forced out of the office than male leaders — 38% of female CEOs were pushed out, compared to 27% of male CEOs in the last decade alone.
In short, women can indeed rise to leadership roles but, too often when they do, they're expected to stem the tides and bear the blame of dire times. As such, they're pushed off the glass cliff.

How companies can address the glass cliff

Unfortunately, the glass cliff is a relatively newly discovered phenomenon. As such, little is being done to stop it. That said, researchers have discovered ways to prevent women from being shoved off the glass cliff.
“We were especially struck by the finding that the phenomenon does not seem to apply to organizations with a history of female leaders,” Bruckmüller and  Branscombe, who conducted the aforementioned experiment on choosing a leader (based on gender), wrote in Harvard Business Review. “This suggests that as people become more used to seeing women at the highest levels of management, female leaders won’t be selected primarily for risky turnarounds—and will get more chances to run organizations that have good odds of continued success.”
In other words: The more women that continue to rise to leadership throughout a company's future, the less that company will have a glass cliff. But you can't just promote more women for the sake of it, without addressing sexism and other systemic issues that may plague the company culture.
"If organizations are saying 'Right we're going to diversify,' you can't just diversify by putting in different people,"  Michelle Ryan, a social and organizational psychologist at the University of Exeter, told Business Insider. "That's a form of numerical diversity. If you want a culture of diversity, that's a much harder thing to do. Throwing women and ethnic and racial minorities into senior leadership roles where there isn't a culture of diversity, where there isn't policies and practices in place that address issues of discrimination, sexism, harassment, racial harassment, etc., that creates its own crisis."
Instead, companies can hire diversity and inclusion strategies to invest in polices they can practice. For example, it's not enough to not be sexist; companies have to be anti-sexist. The same goes for racism in regards to women of color. This involves holding manages accountable for the diversity of their teams (and how much their team members feel included and heard). It means celebrating diversity not just verbally but also with things like equal access to employee resource groups. And it means playing an active role in not just promoting women, but also in supporting them.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog,, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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