The term ‘Glass Cliff’ was coined by researchers from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom after studying the disparity between the promotion of men and women in corporate organisations. They looked at the 100 companies included in the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) Index and found that women were more likely to be promoted to higher positions when the company was performing poorly or going through a crisis. By doing this, women were set up for failure which was likened to standing at the edge of a cliff.
On November 11, 2003, an article titled, ‘Women on board: help or hindrance?’ was published in The [London] Times, where author Elizabeth Judge claimed that despite all the discourse on breaking the glass ceiling, women’s participation as members in London’s boardrooms worsened the companies, especially its share price performance. She came to the conclusion that appointing more women to company boards was detrimental to an organisation’s performance.
It was this article that prompted Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam from the University of Exeter to study the phenomenon in 2005. Taking the sample of 19 companies in the London FTSE 100 that appointed male and female board members in 2003 and looking at their performance five months before and three months after board appointments, it was found that there was greater variability in company performance preceding and following the appointment of a woman. It was also found that women were appointed as board members mostly during an overall market slump or when the company was experiencing turbulence or when there was a decline in performance. Men, on the other hand, were appointed when the company was relatively stable, making sure that their success rates as board members or in higher positions were better. Thus, counter to Judge’s claims, the appointment of women was not related to the decline in company performance. The study further showed that , even during times of crisis, womens’ appointment to leadership positions despite its precariousness and risk, proved positive for the company, because in many cases its performance improved.
The glass cliff is a phenomenon that reinforces stereotypes about women not being ideal in leadership positions. Although glass cliff mainly refers to the obstacles faced by women, the term also applies to the challenges faced by minorities and other marginalised groups when promoted to leadership roles. The phenomenon occurs in many different fields, including finance, politics, technology, and academia. When a company is performing poorly, it is associated with bad press, financial difficulties, and the need to restructure. During such periods, the company protects its male employees and promotes female employees to leadership positions. By promoting women, the company seems progressive but also sets them up for failure. Further, when the company fails to succeed, women can be replaced with their male counterparts, with the company also having a scapegoat to blame for their failures.
Despite circumstances and studies that show that precarious positions do not necessarily appeal to women compared to men, women are more likely to take up these leadership roles because they rarely get other opportunities for advancement. Men, on the other hand, tend to turn down risky roles, as they are sure to get better opportunities for leadership positions elsewhere or when the companies return to stability.
One of the notable examples of the phenomenon was when Marissa Mayer was appointed as the CEO of Yahoo! in 2012 after the company lost significant market share to Google. Despite the condition of the company in which she took over, when she resigned in 2017 after failing to improve the company’s performance, critics attributed the failure of the company to her performance and effort, rather than to the environment in which she was promoted. She was later replaced by Thomas McInerny, a white male.
There are many possible explanations as to why this effect prevails. One of the theories explains that when situations of stress or crises occur, women are preferred over men. This ‘think crisis think female’ theory perceives women to possess the qualities that help them deal with stressful situations better than men. Since stressful situations involve emotional management, women who are assumed to be better managers of people's feelings and problems, are expected to make better leaders during such periods.
Contrasting this, the ‘think crisis think not men’ theory explains how women are perceived to be less valuable than men, making it easier for the companies to throw them under the bus.
A third theory explains how when a company is going through a crisis, bringing about a significant change in its structure can hold positive connotations. Thus, in order to signal a drastic change, especially to their relevant stakeholders, women or people from minority communities are promoted to positions of leadership as it deviates from the conventional idea of leadership.
While the ‘glass ceiling effect’ hinders women and people from minority communities from advancing in their careers after a certain level in various organisations, the ‘glass cliff effect’ ensures that even when promoted, the leadership positions given to these groups are during periods of crisis, so that the company can look progressive and yet replace and blame them for the underperformance of the organisation. Both processes thus, help maintain the status quo and prevent women and members of minority communities from reaching positions of leadership.