The Glass Cliff: Female Leaders in Time of Crisis

by | Feb 19, 2016

The impossible task of leading over the glass cliff

Once you’ve broken through the glass ceiling, there’s another challenge to deal with. The glass cliff sees female leaders hired to turn around unsuccessful companies, then blamed for failing at an impossible task.

The glass cliff

Female Leaders in Times of Crisis  - the glass cliff

Female Leaders and the Glass Cliff

Marissa Meyer was hired to turn around years of dysfunction at Yahoo Mary Barra joined a struggling General Motors, just weeks before a catastrophic safety recall was made public. Read: Women @ Work – Statistics of Women Who LeadAmerican Apparel ousted founder Dov Charney when profits slumped (the preceding decade of sexual harassment allegations didn’t seem to bother them) and brought two women onto the board.

Research shows that in the US, men take on 83% of top-level jobs: in Europe it’s 89%, and a stunning 96% in Asia.   What makes things worse is that the handful of women in high-powered positions are more likely to have been hired at a time of crisis, when strong leadership won’t necessarily be enough to solve the pre-existing problems.

Who are Occupational Minorities?

“Occupational minorities” is an umbrella term for women and people of colour, who are underrepresented in the highest levels of business.  When occupational minorities make it to CEO level, they are significantly more likely to be hired by a company which is failing.  And at the end of their period in charge (which, naturally, is shorter than average) , they will almost always be replaced by a white man.  This is nicknamed thesaviour effect’: you do 95% of the hard work, then someone else comes in just as things have started to turn around.

It doesn’t just happen on the board of directors.  In politics, female candidates are more likely to be assigned to impossible-to-win seats.    Female lawyers are more likely to be given difficult cases.

Most men refuse to believe in the glass cliff.  Reading the statistics, it’s easy to picture evil white men plotting around a conference table like Bond villains.  By choosing a female CEO to helm their failing company, they can appear to be hiring more diversely, while getting a convenient scapegoat to blame when she fails to clear out the Aegean stables.

The Glass Cliff - A Backhanded Compliment

In reality, women tend to be hired in times of crisis because they are perceived as being better qualified to deal with the challenges.  The glass cliff is a back-handed compliment.

Expand your leadership potential with 3Plus Executive and Leadership coaching 

In most jobs, people associate good management with stereotypically male qualities (decisive, powerful, dominant, etc).  Sociologists call this the “Think Manager, Think Male (TMTM) stereotype.  But when asked to describe a manager who would help a struggling workplace, people tend to suggest attributes associated with women, like “understanding”, “tactful”, and “calm”. Read How to Win a Leadership Role . Most people would recommend a female leader to head a company in crisis, especially if all the past directors had been male.

Alice Bell Contributor
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."

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