The Glass Cliff: How Women Leaders Are Set Up for Failure

The Glass Cliff How Women Leaders Are Set Up for Failure

Ever wondered why so few women maintain their spots as leaders? It’s because of the glass cliff.

Women often struggle to make their way into the working world. Whether they are held back by family responsibilities or other kinds of barriers, rising to the top of the corporate ladder is a feat only a few women are able to accomplish. As of 2020, there are only 13 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies.

One of the major challenges facing women leaders from succeeding is the glass cliff. The glass cliff refers to the tendency to promote women into positions of authority within an organization when it is going through a problematic situation. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons behind this phenomenon and how it can be reduced.

How do women end up being pushed off the glass cliff?

The Harvard Business Review explored the glass cliff by conducting a study among college students. Their study found that people prefer stereotypically male attributes (like competitiveness and decisiveness) for a leader when a company is doing well. On the other hand, if a company isn’t doing well, people prefer a leader who has stereotypically female attributes (like communication skills and an encouraging attitude).

While people choose women to take over during times of crisis because of the attributes they are believed to possess, we have to consider why women step up in such scenarios as well. Research conducted by Alison Cook and Christy Glass at Utah State University found that women, who reached high positions in the Fortune 500 companies, took risky positions throughout their careers to prove their capabilities. Research shows that women CEOs excel in complex situations and thrive by being perceived as inspirational.  

One of the women who has been pushed off the glass cliff is Jill Soltau, the former CEO of JC Penny. Soltau was appointed CEO in 2018 and was brimming with potential. The company’s spokesperson even called her an ideal candidate to ensure JC Penny’s long-term growth. However, around the time she was taking on the role, JC Penny had been drowning in debt and with the COVID-19 pandemic following soon after, the company filed for bankruptcy in May 2020. Soltau was asked to step down from her role in December 2020. 

Addressing the glass cliff

Researcher Alison Cook even says that women step into these situations because they “might feel like this might be their only shot, so they need to go ahead and take it.” This shows us that a lot of women see the glass cliff as a way for them to establish themselves as capable leaders. This makes them bravely take on the opportunities presented to them without thinking about what circumstances they are being put under.

So now that we know all that, what strategy can you follow in order to reduce the glass cliff for women? One of the ways of doing so could be relying on facts and figures (such as the candidates’ ambition, personality and previous performance) when selecting leaders for the company. Companies can know more about the candidates by hiring third party consultants, which can ensure objectiveness of the process, to set up blind interviews with them. Having sufficient succession plans can help companies better prepare for potential downturns to avoid panic-picking someone to lead the company and handle a sudden crisis. 

Perhaps the most important step toward addressing the glass cliff would be to aid women in senior leadership positions. This can be done by either giving them bigger budgets, more time or the support of their peers within the company. This will help them power through any crisis the company might undergo without being left to “man” the ship single-handedly. The company must also have a culture of diversity so that when a woman leader is appointed, they aren’t met with discrimination, sexism or harassment simply because they are the minority. 

Just because the glass cliff exists doesn’t mean female leaders should feel discouraged in striving for the positions they deserve. As long as we are aware of the challenges they face, we can take measures to reduce and hopefully eliminate the glass cliff. 

Header image courtesy of Freepik


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