What is the glass cliff? Another thing for women with professional ambitions to worry about.
The glass ceiling is something every woman in every office dreads and unfortunately often witnesses and may experience herself as she progresses in her career. It describes the invisible barrier which prevents women from being deservedly promoted or assuming leadership positions they are more than qualified to take.
It’s a grim reality, and now we have another downbeat term to add to your working life lexicon – the glass cliff. The term was originally coined by psychology researchers at the University of Exeter and came out of research into major companies and their hiring practices. Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam noted that women were more likely to be appointed to boards where companies had performed badly in the preceding months. Women were ‘promoted’ to positions where there were higher risks of failure either due to the company entering a period of crisis or lacking the resources to help them through such a precarious time. The cliff metaphor is meant to represent the sudden shock that can kick in after ‘smashing’ the glass ceiling – the drop-off after the tough climb.
This week on LinkedIn, Marianne Cooper, one of Lean In’s lead researchers, wrote about the glass cliff in light of Ellen Pao’s career.
Pao has become something of a mascot for all the worst challenges women face when they finally get a seat at the coveted table. Earlier this year she lost a high-profile gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm. Pao alleged she was consistently passed over for promotion in favour of male colleagues. Late last year she was appointed interim CEO of the internet company Reddit and recently stepped down. Her time in charge there was marred by a backlash from Reddit users, which was seen by many as harassment.
In Cooper’s article, “Think Crisis – Think Female:” Why Women Leaders Confront the Glass Cliff, which you can read here, she analysed if the glass cliff is a real thing. Are successful women constantly on the offensive? The studies Cooper quotes seem to suggest they should be. A 2005 study of British politics found that the Conservative party tended to run men for ‘winnable’ seats, while women were nominated for election in trickier constituencies. Law students would rather assign tough cases to female lawyers. A study on Fortune 500 companies and CEO appointments showed that women tended to get appointed when business was weak.
Cooper posits many reasons for women and their association with risky business. Promoting a woman can send a sign that a company is ready for a change. Other people believe that women are better at handling a crisis. Women are associated with being more intuitive and understanding – two characteristics that are useful during choppy times.
However, while it is great that some corporate types think women can be natural leaders for difficult times, there are some negatives about such a preconception. What about successful companies? Aren’t women good leaders in all weathers? And what about the danger of companies being set up to fail? What if that woman was a mere parachute that had no chance of ever working?
The takeaway? Lean in by all means, but make sure you’ve got your eyes on the forecast. Sometimes feminine caution might save you in the long run.