Over 17 years ago, the Times of London ran a story on the front page of the business section about how many companies with women on boards or in leadership positions were in worse financial positions. The most obvious conclusion? Women were simply not well suited for these positions. A convenient answer for those most comfortable with the status quo of mostly white, male leadership.
But it didn’t sit right with Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam. The two academics knew that correlation does not imply causation, so they set out to find out what was really going on. The result was giving a name to something that had been happening for years: The women at these companies were falling off the glass cliff.
Chances are you’ve heard of the glass ceiling, that invisible barrier for women trying to break through to the highest levels of leadership, whether in the C-suite or the White House.
But the few women (and other members of underrepresented groups) who do break the glass ceiling often face the glass cliff. They’re brought in to turn things around during dire times, such as when a company is failing, often so that they can be blamed if things don’t go well. In other words, they manage to break through the glass ceiling, only to get pushed off the glass cliff.
It’s a phenomenon where, once you’re aware of it, you can find plenty of high-profile examples. Marissa Mayer, who was appointed CEO of Yahoo in 2014 when the company was struggling to compete with Google; Theresa May, who became England’s prime minister in 2016 after the Brexit referendum caused economic turmoil; Jill Soltau, who was brought in as the CEO of JCPenney in 2018 as the death of malls left the company struggling to stay afloat.
On the latest episode of The New Way We Work, I spoke with Michelle Ryan, professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter and one of the original researchers who coined the term “glass cliff” in 2004. She noted that while the term and the phenomenon have become much more widely known over the last decade, there hasn’t been notable progress.
So why does this happen? Ryan explained that it isn’t just that women and other underrepresented groups are set up to fail or put in as scapegoats; it’s also due to an outgrowth of beliefs about women’s leadership styles. Ryan says, “Our research suggests that in times of crisis, organizations might try and lean toward more stereotypical feminine traits. So whether that’s because we typically have men in leadership roles, so having a woman would mean trying something different, or whether it’s because there’s particular aspects of crises that [organizations believe] need those stereotypical feminine traits.” But while it may seem like a boost of confidence that a company will turn to women to lead in a time of crisis, it’s actually a symptom of thinking of white cis men as the default “normal” leader.
This can then be a self-reinforcing cycle. If women are the exception to the rule in leadership roles, and are mostly in charge of troubled companies, and they fail or they struggle, Ryans says, “We generalize that’s a characteristic of women in general. If a man is in a leadership role and he doesn’t do so well, no one says, ‘Oh, well, you know, men are no good at leadership.’ It’s just him as an individual.”
Ryan went on to give examples of how this plays out across industries from business to government around the world, as well as how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. She also offers some concrete ways companies can start to bring more parity to their upper management.
Listen to the full episode here: