What is the Glass Cliff

Glass cliff is a metaphor that refers to the tendency of groups, organizations, or political parties to put women in power during times of crisis or downturn, when the likelihood of failure is highest.


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 of placing 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.”

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

How Widespread is the Glass Cliff Phenomenon?

The glass cliff theory 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.