Boss Lady

Did you break the glass ceiling only to be headed for a glass cliff?


In 2012, was having difficulty staying relevant when faced with competitors Google and Facebook. They were looking for a savior when they hired Marissa Mayer, an amazingly brilliant executive with a storied track record. However, not surprisingly, Mayer couldn’t spur a miraculous solution for Yahoo’s woes. After only a few years she was pushed to resign only to be replaced by Thomas McInerney, a white male.

This scenario is a commonplace one that demonstrates the insidiousness of the phenomenon known as the glass cliff – said to affect the hiring (and retention) of female executives.

That is not to say that growth in women in C-level positions has been stagnant. Women in board positions in Fortune 500 companies has gone from less than 10% in 1995 to more than 30% in 2017. However, representation in the highest echelons of business is still relatively low.

In fact, while in 2017 the number of women executives in Fortune 500 companies was up to its highest point at 6.4%, that number actually went down in 2018—another indication that the phenomenon of glass cliff is in full effect.

What is the glass cliff?

Initially, the germination of The Glass Cliff was an idea floating around the business world. It seemed that women were called upon, more often than not, to take on leadership positions in times of crisis. Some thought that there was some psychology for calling on a nurturing figure when things were going poorly. Others pointed to the skills of women who identified as better at consensus building, more democratic and participatory. These traits seemed to be generally more useful in the workplace during times of change.

Then, in the early 2000’s, a report came out that analyzed the performance of 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange. The study concluded that companies in the U.K. with the most women executives were disproportionately underperforming. This prompted The London Times to put forth the idea that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on the board.”

The obviously wrong-headed sentiment served as a catalyst for a research study by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, of the University of Exeter. They studied the same companies referenced by the Times, only to find that women had actually been appointed to executive positions when the companies had already been experiencing negative outcomes for nearly two quarters. Ryan and Haslam saw this as “ an additional, largely invisible, hurdle that women need to overcome in the workplace.” Women were mainly given leadership positions during precarious times, only to be blamed when the company did not experience an unlikely turn around.

In a follow up study, researchers Alison Cooke and Christy Glass of Utah State University  showed that women executives were given these jobs in risky situations only to be set up to fail and then to be replaced with white males. They analyzed every CEO transition in Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period. Of the 600 transitions of women executives in those corporations, only 4 were then subsequently replaced by another woman. That means that more than 99% of women executives in those companies were replaced by a man. It’s a staggering statistic that clearly points to a systemic issue.

Obviously, the glass cliff is more than a theory. It is an identifiable trend — and the cause is more complex than just random hiring practice or influences of women in business.

What’s the cause of the glass cliff?

While the true cause of the glass cliff phenomenon is still under debate, many point to the fact that qualified men look at job opportunities differently than women. Because of systemic inequalities, an equally qualified male would shy away from a company that he feels is risky, while a woman in that situation might take the job, despite the risk, because the opportunity feels too good to pass up.

Avoiding the precipice

Trailblazing women in industry have created pathways for the current generation to follow. It’s important to look to them for advice on how to avoid how to get ahead without falling into traps or being set up to fail:

  • Be informed: Make sure you know everything you are getting into when being offered a position. Take the time to research the entire situation and ask about the risk before signing any contract.
  • Set clear goals and boundaries: Put together a realistic set of goals and expectations for the next several years and communicate these very clearly. If they understand exactly what you feel you can deliver, it is better for everyone. And they cannot use a lack of your reaching unrealistic goals against you when a situation has not been fixed over a short period of time.
  • Make it a long-term plan: With the previous bullet in mind, make sure that your plan is long-term and that you follow the action steps and achieve milestones. With this in place, it will be more difficult to oust you in the middle of your work.
  • Know your worth: Women are four times less likely to negotiate their salary. Especially in a situation that is precarious, make sure that the reward is worth the risk. Do your research so you know exactly what to ask for and do not settle for less than what a male counterpart would get.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no: Consider that being seen as failing is probably more troublesome than simply admitting that you don’t want to be the one to take on a risky proposition. It is likely that similarly qualified men were offered the same position only to turn it down.
  • Don’t be fooled into being used as a publicity stunt: Uber was recently courting a female CEO due to allegations of sexual misconduct and security concerns. Several women were wise to their ulterior motives however, and turned down the position. They knew a glass cliff when they saw one.

The most important factor is to educate yourself on the existence of the glass cliff itself. By realizing that the phenomenon is there in the first place, you can be prepared to navigate around it. Check out the infographic from Fundera below for more information and ideas on how you can still be successful without falling prey to a slippery slope.

What is the Glass Cliff?

About Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood is Editor-in-Chief at Fundera. Specializing in financial advice for small business owners, Meredith is a current and past contributor to Yahoo!, Amex OPEN Forum, Fox Business, SCORE, AllBusiness and more.

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