The Glass Cliff Phenomenon and Women of Color (Explainer)

What it means to reach the top—but only when it’s a shaky place to be.

What Is the Glass Cliff?

The term glass cliff, coined by Michelle K. Ryan, PhD, and Alexander Haslam, PhD, of the University of Exeter (explained in the Academy of Management Review) may remind you of the glass ceiling—the invisible barriers such as systemic and implicit bias that prevent women from reaching leadership positions in the workplace. The glass cliff phenomenon occurs when women do reach the top levels of the corporate ladder—but only during crisis when the company is experiencing poor performance or turmoil. As Alison Cook, PhD, and Christy Glass, PhD, demonstrated in Strategic Management Journal, “White women and men and women of color are more likely than White men to be promoted CEO of weakly performing firms.” Because they are elevated when an organization faces difficulties, their position is inherently risky and precarious.

Why Women of Color May Face the Glass Cliff

Advancing to a senior position is only the first component of the glass cliff phenomenon. Once there, many women find they do not receive the support, power, respect, time, and other resources necessary to succeed in the role, especially in a time of crisis. In other words, they are essentially set up to fail. It’s true that in a crisis, many new leaders, regardless of identity, may stumble. But women, and especially women of color, face additional barriers while also managing a culture that might not previously have had a woman, especially a woman of color, in a leadership position. They may experience, for example, a disproportionate share of the blame when things inevitably go wrong, even if their actions are no different from those of a male leader, as explained in this article in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies.

Ellen Pao, who is Asian American, is cited (for example, in the Guardian) as an example of someone who faced the glass cliff. In 2015, Pao decided to resign from her position as CEO of Reddit after facing exceedingly ugly backlash, including death threats, after taking measures to eliminate harassment on the site.

Not all women who experience the glass cliff are women of color. But when women of color are involved, according to research in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they face a particularly high level of scrutiny and aggression, as well as a lack of empathy, making it harder for them to perform at their full potential.

Black Women and the Glass Cliff

Black women in particular face misogynoir (discrimination caused by the intersection of racism and sexism). The term misogynoir was coined by Moya Bailey, PhD, to highlight the fact that Black women regularly face multiple overlapping experiences of stereotyping and discrimination. According to McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report, “Black women leaders are more ambitious than other women at their level,” and “are more likely to have colleagues question their competence and to be subjected to demeaning behavior.” A bisexual Black woman manager says in the report, “When I was promoted to a senior role, I heard comments like, ‘You must have gotten that role because you’re Black.’ A few people actually said this to my face.”

How Companies Can Remove the Glass Cliff

To advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and avoid the phenomenon of the glass cliff, senior leadership and boards need to consider how their succession planning strategies and processes might set up women to fail (for example, by positioning them as “saviors”) and provide organizational support to women in senior executive roles when they are elevated during times of crisis. In addition, they should create a diverse leadership pipeline by identifying and promoting people from marginalized groups (making it less likely that women will be strategically placed in leadership positions to signal a change from the status quo); eliminate bias in talent recruitment; embed inclusive leadership values and practices throughout the organization; and create a culture of inclusion where everyone thrives.

We look forward to the day that the glass cliff is an outdated concept, and women don’t have to face it.

#The glass cliff phenomenon can occur in any high-profile position in an organization. Have you ever seen this happen at your own organization? To learn more, tune into the Catalyst webinar, Black Women and the Glass Cliff on 13 February at 2:00 pm ET.
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