The Glass Cliff

21 May 2017 By Will Brodie

Image credit: Oxford Dictionaries blog
Image credit: Oxford Dictionaries blog

As if the glass ceiling wasn’t enough, now high-achieving women have another obstacle to contend with: the glass cliff.

The term refers to women and other under-represented candidates gaining leadership roles that often prove more risky and precarious than those of their male counterparts. Think of women ascending to leadership roles just when organisations are likely to fail: British PM Theresa May, left to pick up the pieces after the Brexit vote, and Marissa Mayer, who took on the troubled tech giant, Yahoo, both spring to mind.

The psychologists who coined the term ‘glass cliff’ say gender stereotypes are a factor in such appointments. Not only is there a bias to ‘think manager, think male’, there is a tendency to ‘think crisis, think female’.

Even if women are not being set up to fail, their ‘good’ qualities, according to the stereotype – understanding, intuition, tact – mean they are often called upon when male contenders have fled.

 “The default association of leadership with men disintegrates in times of crisis,” according to research, and “gender stereotypes further cause people to expect that women will be better crisis managers.”

Any organisation committed to diversity needs to do more than set quotas in the face of such subtle discrimination, and individuals need to be canny about when to accept senior jobs.

Here are a few suggestions from the experts.


Use objective evaluation

Perception rather than reality governs too many leadership appointments. Reduce the influence of unconscious biases when assessing performance by using objective accountancy.

Train senior management

Managers must be made aware of ‘gendered leadership beliefs’ and the barriers facing minority appointments. Although awareness alone is not enough (diversity must be a core value), it’s an essential first step.

Provide social resources for leaders

Women need access to the advantages taken for granted by incumbents. Social networks, mentors and support programs help leaders build and maintain relationships and give them assistance in their career planning.

Address stereotypes about men

Diversity programs can backfire if they make women seem like the ‘odd ones out’. Training programs should be gender neutral and biases about men need to be addressed equally.

Show you mean it

Annette Zimmerman, CEO of PrimeWay Federal Credit Union, says management can set the tone for cultural change. Make paternity leave available and encourage its use. Support family-friendly legislative changes. Employees working within such a culture will be less prejudiced about a non-traditional boss.


Find support

High-achieving journalist Shraysi Tandon suggests candidates look beyond financial gain when assessing senior positions. “Find out what support structures and mechanisms organisations have in place to help you do your job in the most effective way possible so you’ll all come out ahead,” she says.

Know yourself

Ask yourself why you, and not someone else, are being picked for this promotion,” writes. Sava Berhané, the associate director of Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business.

“Women and minorities have been found to underrate their performance as leaders at higher rates than others,” she says.

“To understand why you’re being selected for a top job, you need to reflect on your capabilities as objectively as possible.”

Know the organisation

“You should always be well aware of your company’s performance as evaluated by key stakeholders: consumers, employees, the board, and the public,” says Berhane.

“The more you know, the better you can negotiate an arrangement that doesn’t leave you absorbing unmerited blame in the end.”