Confident Leader

Are you headed towards the glass cliff?


We’ve all heard about the ‘glass ceiling’; the barrier that prevents women from rising up beyond a particular (invisible) level to the top rungs of the corporate ladder, despite being more than capable of working at the highest level.

But we also have to watch out for the ‘glass cliff’— the risky and unstable positions women often find themselves in if they manage to break through the glass ceiling. Coined by University of Exeter psychologists Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, the term came from research that found women are more likely to break through the glass ceiling when an organization is going through a crisis.

Researchers have also found that this is a method used to actually set up women to work in a much more difficult environment, as it would be difficult for them to succeed and would allow them to eventually be replaced

The reasons behind this practice have been studied countless times, with some researchers suggesting that men in leadership positions are simply skeptical of a woman’s ability in business. Therefore, when they do decide to appoint a woman, it is in a position they would prefer not to be in due to the high likelihood of failure.

Examples of women in high-powered positions ‘falling off the glass cliff’ seem to be more common recently, with the latest case being the summary firing of Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times — and the first female to hold the position. The abrupt dismissal and the lack of any real details as to why she was fired have increased speculation about whether she was set up to fail from the start.

Cases such as Erin Callan of Lehman Brothers and Sallie Krawcheck of Citigroup have also been raised as further evidence of the glass cliff, with both women resigning from their positions after several months of tension where they were presented as being at fault.

Other examples include women such as Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard and Patricia Russo of Alcatel-Lucent, who were appointed CEO of their respective companies straight after a sharp decrease in their share prices. Both women are no longer CEOs, which has been interpreted by many as further evidence of the glass cliff.

Will this change? Will women stop being handed ‘poison chalice’ positions when a company – or sometimes a government – is facing problems? It doesn’t take a crystal (or glass) ball to predict that women will still be seen as expendable executive cannon fodder by some sectors well into the future.

Which means that when you break through the glass ceiling on your own career climb, you must take extra precautions not to fall off the glass cliff.

About Natalie Cupac

Natalie Cupac Journalist & Features Writer for The Business Woman, Natalie Cupac is studying a double degree of Journalism and International Studies and has previously worked for Pacific Magazines

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