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After the Glass Ceiling, Look Out for the Glass Cliff

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

As if it weren’t enough that women and under-represented communities still must bust through the glass ceiling, we also must contend with a glass cliff! The glass cliff is a phenomenon where women in leadership roles are more likely than men to be handed the reins during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.

I just read Elaine Welteroth’s book More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), where she perfectly describes the glass cliff within Condé Nast. She was promoted to editor in chief of Teen Vogue at a time when print publications were already in crisis, and tasked with restoring the publication. She did as she was asked and amplified the magazine’s visibility, earning and following – but it was a case of too little, too late. She joined the ranks of other high-profile women leaders such as Carly Fiorina, who led Hewlett- Packard from 1999–2005 and Patricia Russo, of Lucent and Alcatel-Lucent during 2002–2008.

The Status Quo Bias

A 2011 Harvard Business Review article outlined two ground-breaking studies at Exeter University, which revealed a status quo bias. The first study indicated that a male-led company that is performing well will stay the course with male leadership. However, if the same company gets into hot water, a switch to a female leader will be statistically more likely.

The second study found that if women are in leadership roles during periods of successful performance, the glass cliff disappears. They concluded that “as people become more used to seeing women at the highest levels of management, female leaders won’t be selected primarily for risky turnarounds—and will get more chances to run organizations that have good odds of continued success.”

A Cautionary Tale

We have known about the glass cliff phenomenon since 2005, and like many social and psychological phenomenon, it can get quickly misconstrued by the misinformed. Several writers have commented that once we realize the glass cliff is a “thing” it is natural to play into the bias of assuming these women taking on a struggling organization are somehow more vulnerable, weak or misled – and therefore we must protect them.

Others suggest that individuals like myself should just stop talking about it, since it will deter women from taking on these leadership positions for fear of failing. They argue this is especially true in light of how many women at all levels are departing the workplace, and how many companies are in crisis currently.

I would argue that the more we discuss it, the more we raise awareness of what the glass ceiling really is – the result of our hidden biases. It opens the door for dialog, discussion and real change. Additionally, what the studies found is that when we move women up during times of productivity and growth, then the glass cliff disappears altogether.  And lastly, when we understood there was a glass ceiling, the challenge didn’t deter us, and the same is true of the glass cliff. We are not sacrificial lambs being led to slaughter. We are fierce and rational individuals who are capable of weighing the odds against our own resources and rolling the dice.

Balanced Boards, Balanced Leadership, Balanced Business

I have been honored to recently be immersed in some of the amazing research and work of 50/50 Women on Boards, and their findings align with the rock-solid research of McKinsey & Company and HBR. The results show that organizations that build a leadership team that is reflective of their employee and customer demographics are more productive, profitable, stable and grow more effectively. In other words: balanced leadership is good for business. Their research has focused on the Russel 3000, and investors and stock exchanges are now mandating that these boards be more balanced as a result of the findings.

Understanding this now, in the midst of economic and societal upheaval, is a beacon of hope, and a lesson of how we must change in the future.  To eliminate the glass cliff, we must level the field. It starts now, and the results will be for the greater good.

If you are interested in how to build your balanced leadership team from within your organization, consider starting with our powerful Unstoppable Leadership Workshop.

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