More Insights on Black Women and the Glass Cliff (Blog Post)

Thoughts from webinar participants on what it means to reach the top—only to be set up to fail.

The glass cliff is the idea that women and employees from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are more likely to reach the top levels of the corporate ladder during periods of poor company performance or turmoil. Because they are elevated at the precise moment when the organization is facing difficulties, they are subject to greater scrutiny and their position at the top is inherently precarious.

Our Black History Month webinar, Black Women and the Glass Cliff, explored how this phenomenon has had a disproportionate impact on Black women leaders.

To keep the conversation going, we asked webinar participants Jenn Wells, EdD, DEI Director at the Marlborough School and organizational change consultant, along with moderator Kathrina Robotham, PhD, Director, Research, Catalyst to share further insights.

Why is it important to you personally to talk about the glass cliff?

Jenn Wells: I’ve always been in high-achievement cultures, where the priority is not self, but rather how fast and how much you can accomplish to get to the top. This approach often asks you to betray yourself and sacrifice personal passions or self-care to achieve. So if this is how we reach the next step, it becomes too easy to find ourselves on a glass cliff for the perceived reward of prestige or positions of power. I want Black women to be in leadership roles, but how can we do this without sacrificing ourselves? I am finally at a point in my career where I am slowing down long enough to truly ask these questions.

Kathrina Robotham: I’ve always found comfort in being able to name what I am experiencing and situate it within a broader context of Black women’s experiences. Similarly, I want Black women to be able to give a name to this frustrating work experience that they are having so that they can know they aren’t alone and it’s not their fault. They really are being set up to fail, not given support, and receiving extra scrutiny compared to their White male counterparts. Giving a name to something and understanding the systemic forces behind why it’s happening can be empowering and protective.

What are one or two actions people should take to help women identify, avoid, overcome, or eliminate the glass cliff?

Jenn Wells: Take the “Do you have questions for us?” part of your interview seriously. Develop a list of key questions you want to ask your employer. For me, some of those questions are:

To the CEO or supervisor of your role: What role and actions do you see yourself taking in supporting the retention of women of color on your leadership team (beyond listening)?
Please share with me a time you disagreed with the person formerly in this role and how you managed that disagreement.
How would you define success for this role in the first year?
What potential challenges will the person in this position encounter in trying to create change at this organization?

Kathrina Robotham: The glass cliff is a systemic issue, so any actions for overcoming it should be geared toward changing the hiring, promotion, and evaluation processes that organizational leaders use rather than behaviors that individual women aspiring for leadership positions can take.

Organizations should evaluate their hiring, promotion, and evaluation processes for bias to ensure that racialized gender stereotypes aren’t influencing hiring decisions and Black women are not subject to heightened scrutiny and unreasonable standards during their tenure. In addition, organizations should focus on creating diverse leadership pipelines so that Black women will have more opportunities to advance into leadership positions that aren’t confined to periods when the organization is doing poorly.

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