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Standing on the Edge of the Great Glass Cliff

When I was forging my career in the 1990s, I often heard the term glass ceiling used to describe the unfortunate phenomena that seemed to be stopping women from making it to the top.

The term glass ceiling was first used in the 1980s. It became a powerful symbolic idea that explained the invisible barrier that held back women from achieving senior roles, even when they had the skills and competencies to do so. The glass ceiling was a result of deeply-rooted and deeply discriminatory ideas about women’s capabilities to lead organisations.

Breaking through bias

This century we have seen consistent positive shifts away from these biases that plagued the female leaders who went before us. Women occupy more leadership roles than ever before and the rates of representation on boards and in leadership positions are increasing.

We’re seeing improvements in addressing the gender pay gap. I’m working with many organisation where stereotypes about ‘women’s roles’ and ‘men’s roles’ have gone out the window.  The glass ceiling appears to have been well and truly shattered in the modern organisation.

Yet there is a new metaphoric obstacle for women to face.

What is the glass cliff?

The glass cliff is a new emergent phenomenon, through which women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in times of crisis or uncertainty, when the risk of failure is high. The glass cliff is a metaphorical hazard, because women are often set up to fail in these leadership roles due to the challenging circumstances they inherit.

When did we first observe the glass cliff?

The term glass cliff was coined in the early 2000s by researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam. Their research, published in the British Journal of Management, found many examples of women who had taken on senior roles, such as a President, CEO or Chair during a period of significant challenge for the business. These challenges were varied; but often had to do with reputation, perception, performance or market value.

A 2020 article in the Psychological Bulletin called The who, when, and why of the glass cliff phenomenon: A meta-analysis of appointments to precarious leadership positions affirmed that women are more likely to appointed than men in times of crisis.

When a woman becomes the fall guy

In several of the cases Ryan and Haslam studied, a woman was brought in to be the one to take the blame or responsibility for the decline, in situations where it would have been near impossible for the business to recover. They found examples of where women were being set up to fail in businesses that were declining or in crisis, and defined this experience as being “pushed off the cliff.”

Women can work wonders in a crisis

In other cases, the decision to appoint a female leader at a difficult time was explained differently, and not with deliberate ill-intent. In these cases it often came down to bias once again, about the type of skills women offer, particularly during a crisis.

Many women have attributes that are attractive during challenging times. We tend to be more caring and empathetic, we are often more conciliatory and better at building consensus. These are not only top leadership skills, they are just the kind of human traits that a company in trouble often needs.

Facing the glass cliff head on

In our competitive and fast-paced world, many organisations go through ups and downs. One day you’re doing well and the next, well, things aren’t looking quite so rosy. When it’s time for a change of leadership, women need to be given opportunities in good times and bad.

Many women are keen for a challenge and will rise to the occasion. Often they have been waiting in the wings and formulating ideas that will bring about positive change. As long as they are given clear information about the state of play they can be clear and deliberate about how they want to steer the ship- even if there is a worry that it might be sinking.


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How to handle a risky leadership move

If you’re thinking of taking on a potentially risky leadership position, it pays to consider the opportunity in terms of the past, present and future. Being clear about the current state of play will make it easier for you to decide if you the move is right for you.

·       Explore the past by understanding the factors that led the organisation to be in its current position, and thinking about what could have been done differently, and when.

·       Assess the current situation by doing a stocktake of what organisational competencies there are, and what resources or support might be lacking.

·       Imagine the future by setting a clear vision and realistic course of action to help the company move to where it needs to be.

Concepts like the importance of empathy in a crisis and making courageous leadership decisions are covered in our Leadership Development Programs and our NEW OWL Program as they help women respond to the unique challenges they will face as they lean into leadership. Contact us to learn more about our targeted workshops, courses, and coaching.

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