glass cliff

Introducing the glass cliff: beyond the glass ceiling

The glass cliff is an effect that generally occurs when an organization goes through a crisis period and needs to find a figure to take charge of management or a position of great responsibility to help it out of that situation, precisely when that person is most likely to fail.

How does one get to the glass cliff?

The term glass cliff was coined by Michelle Ryan, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at the University of Exeter (UK). She focuses on how context and identity shape women’s career decisions in collaboration with Alex Haslam, Professor of the same subject at the University of Queensland (Australia). 

Professor Ryan’s concluded that claiming that women-led companies perform worse is a simplistic explanation of what causes a company to fail or succeed. According to her research, what actually happens is that it is in times of crisis – when the company is more challenging to manage and therefore more likely to fail – women have more access to positions of power. 

In addition to women, the glass cliff affects non-white people in general and other minorities. People in these groups are more likely to rise to positions of responsibility (i.e., they have the opportunity to break through the glass ceiling that usually limits them) when the company goes through a period of crisis. In other words, they are often not the ones who lead the organization to poor results, but instead, the results were already there when they took charge of dealing with them

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Subsequent studies have found that this phenomenon, as applied to women, is intensified in countries with a high degree of gender inequality. It makes sense: in more egalitarian contexts, the glass ceiling is less thick, and women enter leadership positions both in periods of crisis and in periods of prosperity for companies. 

glass cliff

That is, once the glass ceiling is broken, many people encounter difficulties in exercising leadership, roles, and responsibilities that traditional leaders (white cis-gender cis-male) would not experience. This puts them on the edge of a metaphorical cliff: seeing their professional reputation damaged or even being fired or forced to resign for not meeting expectations.

What’s brewing on the edge of the abyss

What causes us, just when we are on the edge of (the next) success, to fall off the edge of the cliff? If we take the concept of the glass cliff for granted, perhaps what happens is not precisely that we fall but that we are “dropped.” That is, they make us fall; they pull, push or rush us.

They prevent our ascent and cause our paralysis, our withdrawal, our waiting for the arrival of a professional opportunity that may come later but not now because it is not the right time. It is not for others, it goes without saying, but it was for us, or at least that is how we understood it. Behind the glass ceiling, there was another obstacle, also transparent and therefore invisible.

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What are the interests behind the glass cliff effect? There could be three:

  • For someone to do the dirty work of taking over when no one wants to be associated with it. 
  • Someone is doing the dirty work of taking responsibility for failing to turn the company around at a time of crisis (even though the problem existed before she took over). 
  • A more perverse and sexist reason could be to reaffirm the shared belief that women are not trustworthy when they have to assume a position of power, regardless of the circumstances the company is going through, such as a crisis. Or a problem that she did not cause. 

The inequality cliff

The glass cliff results from a context of gender inequality in society that is reflected in its business ecosystem. It is based on the sexist premise that women or members of other ethnic or gender minorities do not deserve access to positions of responsibility when the company is going through a period of success or normality. However, they can do so at a critical moment: after all, the company is already failing and, if it continues to fail, other potential managers will not be responsible for it. 

Moreover, as we noted at the beginning of this article, the glass cliff is a consequence of the glass ceiling. If it did not exist, women and members of ethnic and gender minorities would have more fluid access to higher positions in the organizational hierarchy even during standard times. Thus, at critical moments, they would not be chosen (only) to put them on the edge of the “abyss” or, at least, they would not be selected more than their white male colleagues. 

glass cliff

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In our Resources section, you will find helpful material, such as podcasts, HR guides, or interviews with HR managers. In addition, we have a Psychosocial Risk Factors Template, which you can use to comply with the requirements of the Labor Inspection.  

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