What Is the Glass Cliff?

Glass cliff refers to a phenomenon wherein women tend to be promoted to positions of power during times of crises, when failure is more likely. British professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, have been credited with coining the term.

Key Takeaways

  • Glass cliff refers to the phenomenon of organizations appointing women and minorities to top positions during times of crises when failure is more likely.
  • Glass cliff can be thought of as being put in a position to fail.
  • The term is derived from the term glass ceiling, which refers to an unseen and unspoken limit on how high women can rise in an organization.

Understanding Glass Cliff

The glass cliff phenomenon occurs in fields as diverse as finance, politics, technology, and academia. While the more common term "glass ceiling" refers to the barrier preventing women from reaching the highest executive levels within their respective organizations, the glass cliff addresses the tendency to place women who have broken through that glass ceiling into precarious positions, making it likely their performance will falter, as if they are at risk of falling off a cliff.

There are many reasons why women tend to be placed in more precarious leadership roles than men. One is the notion that a struggling company will likely result in a shorter tenure for upper management, so the position itself is risky. Placing a woman in that position gives the company someone to blame if she fails to pull the company out of its downward spiral. It also makes the company look good regardless: if the woman fails, the company still earns a reputation of being "progressive," but it is free to reappoint a man to her position when she fails; if she succeeds, the company is better off and might even take credit for having the foresight to appoint the right person for the job. Women often struggle in such situations due to a lack of mentors and access to the “good old boys’ club.” A glass cliff position can be difficult to turn down because leadership roles are so infrequently offered to women.

Although the term glass cliff is typically applicable to women, it can also be used in reference to minorities or any group marginalized by prejudice.

How Widespread Is the Glass Cliff Phenomenon?

The glass cliff phenomenon has been documented in companies and organizations in a wide variety of disciplines, from law to education to politics. In 2004, Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter studied FTSE 100 companies and found that companies that appointed women to their boards were more likely to have performed poorly in the preceding five months. The term "glass cliff" was born from this study. A subsequent study from 2006 revealed that female law students were typically assigned the highest risk cases or those with the highest probability of failure.

Recent examples of prominent women facing glass cliffs include Marissa Mayer, who was appointed CEO of Yahoo in 2014 after it lost significant market share to Google, and Theresa May, who became England’s Prime Minister in 2016 after the Brexit referendum caused the pound to drop to historic lows.