The ‘Glass Cliff’ Phenomenon

Leo Hynett

You’re likely familiar with the glass ceiling, but what about the glass cliff?

The glass cliff refers to the ‘phenomenon whereby women (and members of other minority groups, such as those based on race or disability) are over-represented in leadership positions that are risky and precarious’. This conjures an image of a woman who has broken through the glass ceiling and reached the heights of senior leadership but now finds herself teetering on an unsteady cliff edge. She has reached an incredible position, but it’s a precarious one.

There is robust evidence for the glass cliff phenomenon – it’s been demonstrated through over a decade’s worth of archival and experimental research, including work in the UK, the US, The Netherlands, Australia, and Germany.

Companies can use the positive PR of promoting a female leader in a time of crisis, while simultaneously creating the perfect scapegoat if things go awry.

Where did the phrase ‘glass cliff’ come from?

The term was coined by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2003 following an article published in The Times that suggested that FTSE 100 companies with women on their boards perform worse in terms of share prices. The author of the article in question suggested that women were ‘wreaking havoc’, and concluded ‘corporate Britain would be better off without women on board’.

The evidence reported was entirely correlational – while there was an association between female board members and poor share price performance, one did not necessarily cause the other.

A team from The University of Exeter conducted a study into the glass cliff and the claims made by the Times article. They ‘theorised that a very different causal relationship could be at play, such that women may be more likely to secure leadership positions only when companies are doing poorly.’ It seemed that the article was an example of what can happen when analysis is conducted with a particular conclusion already in mind.

The reality was quite different to what the original article suggested. Experimental studies showed that ‘women were more likely to be selected over men as a leader in times of crisis, and this effect was more pronounced in countries that have more gender inequality.’ It became clear that women were being handed the helm of already sinking ships, left to shoulder the blame for declines that were set in motion before their appointment:

‘Their appointment tended to be preceded by a period of consistent poor share-price performance, rather than performance declining after women were appointed.’

It has been suggested that this pattern stems from whether stereotypically masculine attributes or stereotypically feminine attributes are more useful in a crisis. This has been found to vary depending on the type of crisis – ‘feminine’ traits were preferred in a relational crisis, whereas ‘masculine’ ones were preferred in a financial one. ‘Crucially, this was true independent of whether the candidates with these traits presented as male or female.’ Additionally, promoting women in time of crisis gives companies a scapegoat for poor performance, whilst also supporting future decisions to appoint men to the role.

The glass cliff in politics

While evidence for and against the existence of the glass cliff in management has arguably been mixed, it has been more clearly identified in politics. One obvious example of a glass ceiling appointment in UK politics was Theresa May following the Brexit referendum.

Archival analysis of the 2005 election also showed that ‘within the Conservative party, women won significantly fewer votes than their male counterparts.’ The reason for the discrepancy was neatly ‘explained by the fact that female candidates contested seats that were significantly more difficult to win because the candidate they were competing against had won a higher proportion of votes at the previous election.’

Interestingly, the prevalence of the glass cliff phenomenon has been found to vary along political lines. A study conducted in the US around the time of the 2016 election found that ‘for Democrats, more women win when more women run, but for Republicans, more women win only when the seats they face are more winnable.’

The glass cliff and minorities

This is not a phenomenon that solely impacts women, it affects anyone who is in any way part of a minority:

‘​​While there were fewer studies looking at a glass cliff for leaders from ethnic minorities as there are for women, those that do exist suggest it is just as steep. What’s more, evidence shows that there is no difference in the size of the glass cliff for people from different minority ethnic backgrounds.’

This seems to be the case for anyone who is non-white, suggesting that this stems from the fact they are in some way ‘other’; Thekla Morgenroth of Purdue University, who conducted a meta-analysis based on data from 74 existing studies, noted ‘​​It doesn’t really matter how they’re different as long as they’re visibly different.’

For people who are at the intersection of multiple minorities, the phenomenon is amplified.

Awareness of the presence of the glass ceiling is an important step towards combatting the phenomenon, allowing women to be promoted to these positions of power with equal regularity – and for the same reasons – as their male counterparts. Hopefully, it will also end the pattern of blaming leaders for issues that were already in motion before their appointment.

Analysis of the phenomenon has highlighted a longstanding issue, and the initial 2003 coverage in The Times has highlighted the importance of identifying the difference between correlation and cause.