As if the glass ceiling weren’t a very big (and very real) impediment to look forward to in my career, I recently found out about its close cousin – the glass cliff.
Research shows that women have a higher chance of breaking through the glass ceiling when an organisation is in crisis. The ‘glass cliff’ refers to this phenomenon – where women are promoted to senior leadership roles during difficult times, when the risk of failure is high.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking – this sounds made up (or if you belong to the ruder circles – these feminists will really look for any reason to complain).
However, the glass cliff is a heavily research-backed phenomenon.
The term was coined by University of Exeter researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam after they came across a newspaper feature that suggested that women leaders negatively impact an organisation’s performance. The two researchers looked at over 100 companies to analyse their performance before and after women were brought on board.
Their findings showed that companies that had brought on women leaders were more likely to have shown bad performance in the preceding five months than those who brought on men.
Several studies in the years since the term was coined have come to the same conclusion: the bias holds. This research, coupled with numerous real-life examples through history — think Carol Bartz becoming CEO of Yahoo when it had just laid off 1600 employees, Anne Mulcahy being promoted to CEO of Xerox when it was on the edge of bankruptcy, or Jill Soltau becoming CEO of JCPenney when it had been reporting losses quarter after quarter – presents the glass cliff as yet another challenge to women at work.
Is the glass cliff really as harmful as the glass ceiling?
The glass ceiling makes it hard enough for women to reach leadership positions, but the glass cliff ensures that the women who do break through the barriers fail afterwards – thereby making it harder and harder for women to break through the glass ceiling in the future.
It reinforces the belief that women can’t lead and sets a harmful example for all women in the workforce.
The reasoning behind the glass cliff phenomenon occurring is just as harmful as the actual phenomenon. When organisations appoint a woman during times of financial crisis or risk, it becomes easier to blame their poor performance on a woman’s leadership. The woman acts as a scapegoat to blame the organisation’s failures on. The asset that companies value the most – male leaders – will then continue to take on senior positions.
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How can companies prevent the creation of glass cliffs?
Have a succession plan based on objective data
It’s important for companies to have a tentative succession plan, long before the company shows signs of a downturn, of which employees could take over leadership roles when they open up.
The plan should be based on data and evidence – past performance of employees, work assessments, personality tests, and the employees’ ambitions.
Conduct blind hiring
Blind hiring blocks out personal information of candidates that could cause a bias in the hiring process. This would include such things as name, college, address, and most importantly here – gender identity.
Conducting a blind hiring would ensure a fairer hiring and promotion process, where the person is selected to lead the organisation out of its struggles based on their merits – not because the hire will be a good scapegoat.
Offer women-specific leadership development
A study by Pinsight found that men are 2 times more likely to be groomed for leadership roles by organisations than women.
It’s important for companies to develop leadership tracks for women as well, if gender-neutral leadership development is something we can’t ensure yet.
One-on-one coaching, mentorship, and skill training should be provided to women to ensure that if they are promoted to leadership roles, it’s because they have been groomed and equipped for it.
While we slowly continue to shatter the glass ceiling, the cliff will be a harder one to break down.
If you’re a team whose leader seems to have been put in a glass cliff position, do what you can to raise awareness about the unfair situation. Support your leader in whatever way you can, and be someone they can rely on to be professional and not judge them.
If you think you’re a woman leader who has been put on a glass cliff, know you deserve to be in a good position regardless of the situation. Bring your skills, knowledge, and leadership to the company to the best of your abilities. Refuse to internalise failures outside of your control.
And most importantly, keep your head high, keep your sights on the horizon, and don’t look down.
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