How women end up standing on the precipice of the ‘glass cliff’ and what you can do about it!

Aug 24, 2023

Do you sometimes think you’ve been set up to fail? Does your long-awaited promotion sometimes feel like a ‘poisoned chalice’? Could it be that you’re on a ‘glass cliff’? The ‘glass cliff’ is a phenomenon that has been noted in a range of different professional environments. So what is it? It’s the phenomenon whereby someone, typically a woman, is promoted to a position of authority in an organisation at a critical point in the organisation’s history when the organisation is already struggling. Critics of the glass cliff phenomenon argue that women are set up to fail by being more likely to be promoted under these precarious conditions. They argue that when the woman fails, as the conditions make it likely that they will, their gender is taken to be the cause of the failure. In this way, negative stereotypes of women unfairly appear to be "confirmed" by these often high profile failures. 


Let's look at one of the high profile examples cited in the press in the UK’s recent political history. According to Bores (2022), “the fate of Liz Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister was sealed from the onset.” She resigned just 6 weeks after her appointment on September 6th, 2022, marking it the shortest tenure of a UK Prime Minister on record. While it can be argued that she may have expedited her downfall with the decisions she made, it begs the question – was the writing already on the wall? The glass cliff theory suggests so. The cost of living crisis; the fallout of Brexit; conflicts in Northern Ireland; the war in Ukraine - these were but a few of the raging problems she faced on entering her role. We know when she began the position, “she immediately faced speculation of removal, and rumours of the writing of no-confidence letters already began to spread.” 


The findings of academic research appear to corroborate what we have seen in the high profile example given of Liz Truss, as well as others we could mention such as Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Jill Soltau at JCPenney. One of the most well-known and comprehensive studies on the glass cliff is the research conducted by Ryan and Haslam in 2005, which found that women were more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in crisis conditions, such as when a company was performing poorly. The research hypothesis was investigated using archival information. The researchers examined “the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of a male or female board member”. The study revealed that “during a period of overall stock-market decline those companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men.” The researchers conclude that there is an “additional, largely invisible, hurdle that women need to overcome in the workplace.” 


Why is the glass cliff a problem? By setting a woman up to fail by promoting them in a period when the company is already struggling, it perpetuates negative stereotypes that women are incompetent or unable to cope under pressure. In a glass cliff scenario this is an unfair conclusion to draw. If they have failed after being given a doomed job because the organisation is already floundering, it’s not the fault of the social group they belong to. However, this is a convenient explanation for someone to give if they want to maintain the status quo. When negative stereotypes persist they create inequity in organisational career processes. A woman may be passed up for promotion, for example, because the stereotype persists that they will be incapable of handling the responsibility. The glass cliff phenomena exacerbates these negative stereotypes by seeming to give “evidence” to support them. 


Have you observed glass cliff appointments in your own organisation? Are you looking to make your organisational career processes more equitable so under-represented talent are set up for success? The Careers Company can help you diagnose these issues in the first instance through our Organisational Career Diagnostic (OCD). Our Organisational Career Diagnostic helps provide an objective analysis of the bright spots and pain points in your organisation’s systems, processes and capability to drive career success for your employees. The diagnostic process is underpinned by our holistic model which measures six elements of your organisational career framework providing an indication of your organisational career maturity and how you compare to the best in the industry. For more information on our Organisational Career Diagnostic click here. The OCD nicely leads onto any one of our other evidence based interventions to address any issues found. Contact us by clicking here. We’d love to hear from you!

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