The Glass Cliff: Why Companies in Crisis Promote Women

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As a small business leader, you likely value creating the best leadership teams possible and hope that your business practices are fair and ethical. It's important to be aware of issues that could get in the way of that, like the tendency of companies to promote women to positions of leadership only during times of crisis.

Often referred to as "the glass cliff", many believe that this tendency can be unfair and creates a situation where women are more likely to be given leadership opportunities when they are most likely to fail.

Glass Cliff Definition

In a perfect world, women and men would be on an even playing field in the world of business, but in reality, this is not always the case. The term "glass cliff" was coined following the results of a 2006 study from the University of Exeter. Researchers found that when companies appointed women to their boards, they were more likely to have been going through a time of less-than-favorable business conditions in the five months prior.

A 2006 study from the William & Mary Law School showed that female law students were more likely to be assigned to difficult law cases than their male counterparts. In both studies, the women were more likely to present an appearance of failure and bear the brunt of the blame for circumstances they had nothing to do with creating.

Glass Cliff vs. Glass Ceiling

While the glass cliff happens when women are placed in positions of leadership during turbulence, many people are more familiar with the term "glass ceiling". The glass ceiling refers to barriers in business that prevent women from obtaining positions of leadership.

The two terms can be seen as related in that even when a woman breaks through the glass ceiling and obtains a high position of leadership, turbulent circumstances could make her more likely to fail or "fall off the cliff" than if she were promoted during times of success.

Glass Cliff Examples

The glass cliff can happen in a variety of settings, including politics and business. Three real-life glass cliff examples from the business world include:

  1. Carly Fiorina was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard during a layoff of 30,000 workers following the company's acquisition of Compaq and then ousted in 2005. 

  2. Pat Russo of Lucent resigned in 2008 following an international merger, rising costs and other difficult business circumstances.

  3. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo was forced to resign following problems, including a massive data breach.

In each of these cases, the woman CEO was only in place for a few years.

Why the Glass Cliff Happens

While the glass cliff phenomenon is supported by research as being a common pattern, possible reasons for this tendency are varied. As a small business leader, understanding the following possibilities could help you prevent this pattern in your own setting:

  • Companies are trying to present an image of "change" by putting women in leadership

  • People view women's leadership abilities as being more suited to times of crisis

  • Gender stereotypes about women being more compassionate during times of crisis

  • An unwillingness of established leaders to assume the risks of a challenging period

Being aware of our biases helps us avoid acting on them so that people of all gender identifications are set up to succeed in our small businesses.

Taking On the Glass Cliff

Focusing on the metaphor of the glass cliff exclusively can present a problematic cycle of negative language when it reinforces the stereotype of women being incapable of assessing risk or being lured into dangerous situations without knowing.

Instead of focusing there, small business owners are in a unique position to create change and fight the glass cliff by encouraging women to hold leadership positions during good times as well as challenging times. When women are valued in leadership during all seasons, there is no cliff to fall off during hard times.