Theresa May: The latest glass cliff victim?

by | Jun 3, 2019

Why do women fall foul of the glass cliff?

We have all heard of the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff can be even more damaging.  Should women see it coming?

The term the glass cliff is used to explain the phenomenon of women in high-risk leadership roles. Specifically, either in the corporate world or politics, women are more likely than men to take on leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn. This is when the chance of failure is highest. Associated with this phenomenon is the steepness and unexpected nature of the fall.

glass cliff

The term was introduced in 2004 by professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Their research examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members. They revealed that:

"Companies that appointed women to their boards were likelier than others to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months."

This work eventually developed into the identification of a phenomenon known as the glass cliff. It is of course, a follow-up to the theory of the glass ceiling. It implies an "inability to perceive the dangers of the cliff's transparent edge." Instead they see the false promise of "elevated organizational positions that are clearly visible through a transparent ceiling of glass, but which are actually unattainable." 

But should these women see the writing on the wall?

Set up to fail

Ryan and Haslam's research suggests that when women break through the glass ceiling to take on those longed for leadership roles, they have different experiences to their male counterparts. Once at the top, other research reports gender difference in an ability to survive risk and failure. Data published by HBR  shows that when female executives fail to turn around negative business situations, corporate cultures are brutal.  Women leaders tend to be more isolated, with fewer sponsors and a reduced support network so find it harder to secure assistance.  We see an increased tendency to crash out frequently without a second chance. The Athena Factor research shows that a significant proportion of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) believe that when they fail they are not offered further opportunities and any failure is held against them in a way not experienced by their male counterparts who get off more lightly.

However, there is other research carried out on US companies between 1992 -2004,  that suggests that CEO appointments made during this period showed that women executives are no more likely to be selected for precarious leadership positions than men.

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Why is there a glass cliff?

University of Houston psychology professor Kristin J. Anderson has a theory. She says companies offer glass cliff positions to women because they may consider women "more expendable and better scapegoats." She adds that the organizations that offer women tough jobs believe they win either way. If the woman succeeds, the company is better off. If she fails, the company is no worse off, she can be blamed, the company gets credit for having been egalitarian and progressive, and can return to the old ways.

Haslam and Ryan say their studies show that people believe women are better-suited to lead companies that need managing during crisis. This is because they are felt to be more nurturing and  creative. The researchers argue that female leaders are not necessarily expected to improve the situation but as good people managers can become scape goats for any organizational failure

Haslam has said that women executives are more likely than men to accept glass cliff positions. This is because they have fewer opportunities to be considered for top roles than men. Utah State University professors Ali Cook and Christy Glass say women and other minorities view risky job offers as possibly the only chance they are likely to get. Women can also be a cheap interim solution. Just look at Marissa Meyer's successor who earned twice her salary. In some cases, they may also have more restricted access to insider information and support that would ordinarily warn executives away.

Does gender affect our view of the glass cliff?

A 2007 study from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom found gender impacted perception of the glass cliff. "The research demonstrates clear differences in men's and women's reactions to the glass cliff. While women were more likely to acknowledge the existence of the glass cliff and recognise its danger, unfairness, and prevalence for women, men were more likely to question the validity of research into the glass cliff, downplaying the dangers. These patterns were mirrored in the explanations that individuals generated. While women were most likely to explain the glass cliff in terms of pernicious processes such as a lack of alternative opportunities, sexism, or men's in-group favouritism, men were most likely to favour largely benign interpretations, such as women's suitability for difficult leadership tasks, the need for strategic decision‐making, or company factors unrelated to gender."

Glass cliff positions risk hurting the women executives' reputations and career prospects. When a company does poorly, people tend to blame its leadership without taking into any wider contextual variables. Researchers have found that female leaders find it harder than male ones to get second chances once they have failed due in part to having fewer mentors and sponsors, and less access to a protective old boys club.

Famous glass cliff alumnae

Here are some examples of women who have been so-called victims of the glass cliff.

  • 2008- after the Icelandic banking crisis, various women were appointed to repair the industry, with the rationale that broader perspectives would prevent the repetition of the  same mistakes.
  • 2012- Marissa Mayer was appointed as the CEO of Yahoo after it started losing ground to Google.
  • 2014- General Motors hired Mary Barra as CEO, during a period in which it announced a number of product recalls.
  • 2016- Theresa May became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, shortly after a referendum result to leave the EU.

Eyes wide shut

It's clear that we don't know what was going through the minds of the women on this list when they made a decision to take on these top jobs. But all of them must have realised they were going into situations which were critical, and in some ways precarious or even dangerous for their companies and countries, and maybe even themselves at different levels. Theresa May was no exception.  The leading men in the equation dropped like flies around her. This is perhaps should have been a sure-fire sign that she was  in a no-win situation, with all the stress and anxiety that power under those circumstances brings.

So maybe Mrs. May saw this as her last and only chance to fulfill her childhood ambition. Either way, she was willing to put herself forward for the job, with all the potential risks and downsides associated with it.

At the time of writing she is now listed as one of the worst Prime Ministers in memory. Only time will tell if history will be kind to her.

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