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What You Need To Know About The Glass Cliff, The Workplace Phenomenon That Prevents Us from Seeing More Successful Female Business Leaders

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For as long as I can remember I’ve been warned about the Glass Ceiling, the invisible but seemingly impossible to break through barrier that sits above the heads of women in business- stalling ambitious women’s careers, and stopping them not only from scaling to the highest possible peaks of leadership, but the limits of their own personal potential.

Growing up as a girl in the 90’s, fed on a diet of Spice Girls-branded “Girl Power,” I was used to being told that anything was possible for myself and girls like me– a message that I found difficult to balance alongside the limiting force of the Glass Ceiling I’d heard so much about.

This is, until I learned about the Glass Cliff.

The Glass Cliff is the lesser known sister to the Glass Ceiling- the workplace phenomenon that sees that women are most likely to be given the opportunity to step into leadership roles in businesses or organizations that are already in the midst of a period of organizational crisis.

The types of crises that we bring women in to navigate through are various and wide-ranging. They can be anything from a hit to stock market valuation or profitability, to a reputational scandal, or beyond, but the research remains consistent- those businesses that are already experiencing a prolonged period of difficulty suddenly become much more likely to appoint a female leader to the top spot- particularly if only white males have held those positions up to that point.

These precarious “opportunities” parachute female leaders into positions with a heightened risk of failure, and associate them from the outset with both crisis and poor performance, despite them not having a hand in causing the troubles that they have been brought in to solve.

In this way, during such moments of crisis, the long held adage of “Think Manager, Think Male” becomes replaced by a new way of thinking: “Think Crisis, Think Female.” It’s a shift in our perception that happens because during difficult times, businesses often reassess the skills, values, and competencies they are looking for in a leader to see them back to a sure footing.

Related: A Leap Of Faith: What It Takes To Be A Female Entrepreneur In A Male-Dominated Industry

The downside of this bias towards turning to female leadership during challenging times is that not only do women face more difficulties by stepping into businesses that are already struggling, research shows us that they are more likely than their male counterparts to be fired with a short tenure- giving them less time to turn a difficult start into a story of success, and giving us collectively fewer examples of female success to point to.

Research also shows us that whilst both male and female leaders face dismissal when business performance is poor under that watch, men in leadership are able to save their roles by improving personal performance. Women, on the other hand, are not offered the same protections, as female leaders are just as likely to face dismissal when business performance is good as when it is poor, and they are overall 45% more likely to be fired than their male counterparts.

One reason for this could be explained by research which has shown that our favor towards looking to women for positions where they have been overlooked up to that point was especially strong “when the manager was required, or expected, to simply stay in the background, and endure the crisis, or become a scapegoat for poor company performance,” with the researchers noting that “these findings are consistent with suggestions that women who are selected for Glass Cliff positions may be getting set up to fail.” It seems that in times of crisis, we look to women to soothe and reassure employees, boosting spirits and morale, rather than looking to them to make transformational business change, even when they hold track records of operational excellence.

Given this tendency to set women up to fail, and the shorter times in role experienced by many women, it’s shocking -but not surprising- to learn that whilst only 16% of men -and 6% of male leaders- have had a colleague imply that they are not qualified for their role, 31% of women have faced this demoralizing and disrespectful suggestion. This could be rooted in an assumption that non-traditional leaders have achieved their positions thanks to some kind of affirmative action, rather than being qualified to take on the role on their own terms as a result of their own merit.

Related: Seven Lessons For Women In Business (From Other Women In Business)

Sophie Williams’ third book released in March 2024. Credit: Sophie Williams.

Indeed, researchers say that “intergroup bias also regularly manifests as a tendency to discount the achievements and career accomplishments of out-group members, with people tending to overstate the degree to which out-group members’ successes are due to special treatment [. . .] Whites tend to believe that successful African Americans have succeeded in part due to preferential selection processes such as affirmative action; men tend to hold similar beliefs regarding the career successes of women. These predominantly subconscious assumptions will contribute further to the tendency for white males to underestimate the capabilities of a racial minority or female CEO.”

So, while they feel that leaders who are like themselves must have earned their roles, they are less likely to believe the same of those who differ from themselves in terms of either race or gender. And so, in presuming that these positions have been given rather than earned, we find that that middle managers are less likely to actively associate themselves with a leader who they perceive to be a risky bet, being less likely to back them, or their new directions, and so, turning the perceived future failure of a marginalized leader into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they distance themselves from the business, the leader, and their new initiatives.

When we add to this the fact that CEOs who are recruited externally are 6.7 times as likely to be dismissed with a short tenure than those who are promoted internally -since they need to spend their early days not only learning a new business, but establishing new working relationships and support systems- and recognize that this is notable because female CEOs are much likely than their male counterparts (22% vs. 35% respectively) to be brought into leadership roles as external hires, we can begin to get an understanding of just how much internal support matters for female leaders trying not to fall foul of the Glass Cliff.

The Glass Cliff shows us that simply bringing women into leadership positions is not enough, just as it would not be enough to disproportionately bring any group into high profile roles simply to use them as scapegoats, caregivers, or stopgaps, while we look for the right man for the job. Instead of setting female leaders up for an inevitable fall from the edge of the Glass Cliff, we need to recognize the role that support -at all levels- is essential in turning precarious female leadership opportunities into stories of success.

Related: Supercharging Women In The Workplace: Tapping Into Opportunities In “The New Normal”

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