- The glass cliff also shows up in experiments.
- In experimental studies, 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.
- But the part of the analysis looking at real-world data notably didn’t find a glass cliff in management – where the phenomenon was first uncovered – though it did find one in politics and the education and non-profit sectors.
Persons are more willing to select women and people of colour to positions of leadership during difficult times. This, however, places crisis leaders in a dangerous position as reported by BBC.
Struggling internet company
When Carol Bartz was appointed CEO at Yahoo in January 2009, the internet company was struggling.
She was hired on a four-year contract and put forward a strategic plan to turn things around.
“They didn’t even let [her plan] come to fruition,” says Alison Cook, a professor of management at Utah State University in the US.
Bartz is one of the countless female leaders given a precarious leadership position and left standing on the edge of a “glass cliff” with no support.
Research shows that women and people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be chosen to lead a company, sports team, or even country when it is in crisis mode.
Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK set about investigating the apparent correlation.
The researchers also analysed promotion patterns at Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year timespan and saw that – compared to white men – white women and both men and women of colour were more likely to be appointed as CEO in struggling firms.
In the 2005 UK general election, female Conservative party candidates contested harder-to-win seats than their male counterparts.
The glass cliff also shows up in experiments.
But the phenomenon doesn’t appear everywhere, and, after failing to find a glass cliff in companies in the UK and Germany, some researchers have gone as far as to suggest it’s a “myth”.
The glass cliff
Ryan, now director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University, says the fact the glass cliff is not seen universally reinforces that it is dependent on many factors.
“Our research doesn’t say that every woman faces the glass cliff, or that non-men occupy risky leadership positions – but rather that women are over-represented in glass cliff positions,” she says.
A 2020 meta-analysis by Thekla Morgenroth at Purdue University in Indiana, US, and colleagues took in data from 74 existing studies and found that the evidence for the phenomenon was mixed.
In experimental studies, 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 might be that in the management domain, the glass cliff isn’t a thing, or that there are more moderators and more nuances that we just didn’t pick up on,” says Morgenroth.
Explanations of the glass cliff fall into three main categories: those hiring a new CEO might think that stereotypically female traits are helpful in a crisis; a political party might want to signal to the outside world that they are changing; or, perhaps, decision-makers are simply prejudiced against certain groups of people.
“It’s likely that a combination of factors is at work.”
“Our research suggests that the glass cliff is multiplied determined,” says Ryan.
But those studies have tended to consider gendered traits and the actual gender of potential leaders interchangeably.
In work published last year, Clara Kulich at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and Leire Gartzia at the University of Deusto, Spain, alongside colleagues, devised a study to look at gender and gender stereotypes separately.
They asked participants to read about a fictional company in three scenarios: internal disharmony among employees, poor financial management, or no crisis.
Then they were given brief CVs of candidates for CEO, featuring a short description of their working style peppered with gendered traits, such as that they are considerate and kind, or independent and decisive.
What they found was that candidates described with stereotypically female or communal traits, like being kind, were favoured for the company in a relational crisis, whereas candidates described with stereotypically male traits, like being decisive, were favoured for the financial crisis.
Crucially, this was true independent of whether the candidates with these traits presented as male or female.
“There seems to be something about gender that makes us choose women in different types of crisis,” says Kulich.
She says she thinks stereotyping is one part of the story, but it can’t fully explain leadership choices.
If it’s not about stereotypes, what is causing the glass cliff?
To do that, they might choose a new leader who is a marked change from their predecessor.
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.
In fact, there can be a fine line between using a new leader to signal change and using them as a scapegoat.
“You just put them there until you have a better solution, but you don’t really believe in what they can actually do,” says Kulich.
Of course, not everyone who wants to see people from underrepresented groups in leadership positions has negative motives.
The motives of decision-makers, and the support they give, can make a big difference to those in glass cliff positions.
Research led by Sarah Robinson at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, shows female Democratic candidates in the US do well in hard-to-win seats, getting more votes and even sometimes winning, whereas Republican women don’t fare as well.
“One of the early assertions was it might be the only opportunity that they think they’re going to be getting, so they’re going to go ahead and take it,” says Cook.
But her research shows that, at least for some minority leaders, this narrative needs flipping.
“It’s not that it’s just happening to them,” she says.
Cook interviewed 33 women and people of colour in senior leadership roles across a range of industries in the US and found that nearly all of them recounted multiple risky, make-or-break assignments during the course of their careers.
“So many of them have had this agency throughout, and they’ve set themselves up to prove their leadership worth early on,” she says.
“They have had these situations throughout their entire career.
For starters, if you don’t make it through a risky assignment, you may not get a second chance.
It was really hard to hear that,” says Cook.
There’s also the added pressure of feeling like you’re not just representing yourself, but others like you.
They may attribute [his or her] lack of success to race.
The idea that a minority leader’s failure will provoke a return to the white, male norm is backed up by Cook’s research showing that when a firm’s performance declines during the tenure of an occupational minority CEO, they are likely to be replaced by a white man.
The researchers call it the “saviour effect”.
There’s also evidence that some leaders do face more scrutiny than others.
The consequences of the glass cliff could stretch further than individual careers and companies losing talented employees.
“As gender equality increases the glass cliff should, in theory, fade away.
These countries are fairly similar culturally,” says Morgenroth.
“It’s surprising and maybe encouraging that even small differences in gender inequality can really make a difference.”
According to one study, strategies used within Labour since 1997, including all-women shortlists in winnable seats, now mean their female candidates are equally likely as men to see election success.
If a concerted effort to promote certain groups of people over others sounds like favouritism, consider the glass cliff from another perspective: in a paper reviewing a decade of work on the glass cliff, Ryan and colleagues suggest that cushy leadership positions are given disproportionately to men – a “glass cushion” – could be at the root of the problem.
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