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The Truth about the Glass Cliff and Women Leaders

Glass Cliff

Advancing to the top ranks in a corporation is no small feat for women in business, as it’s no secret that women are faced with particular hurdles that make career advancement a challenge. In addition to dealing with the reality of gender discrimination in the workplace, pay inequality, and even sexual harrassment, many women also have to confront the obstacle of the glass ceiling. But what exactly is the glass cliff that I mention in the title of this post?

The Glass Ceiling vs. Glass Cliff

Firstly, the glass ceiling is an invisible barrier to success that prevents women from reaching senior roles in companies. But even for those that are able to successfully shatter the glass ceiling and take on top executive roles, too many capable women are faced with yet another career challenge: the delicate paradox of the glass cliff.

The glass cliff, a term first contrived by scholars Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in 2005, is a close relative to the glass ceiling. The glass cliff metaphor describes what all too frequently happens when women are promoted to leadership positions in a company when business performance is notably suffering.

Women are appointed to these top roles despite the chance of failure being the highest, and they often are not given adequate support to succeed there. Thus, these women often have to bear the full blame if they are unable to pull the company out of its crisis.

If nothing more than a cruel reminder of the commonality of this phenomenon, women CEOs tend to be 45% more likely to be fired from CEO roles than men. Wow.

So, Women Ought to Give Up on Having Successful Leadership Roles?

No. Thankfully, it’s entirely possible for women to face the glass cliff and avoid falling off.

One might wonder why a high-performing woman would even bother to accept a leadership role under precarious circumstances. But the harsh reality is that the position, no matter how risky, could very well be the one opportunity at leadership.

It’s not fair, of course, but here’s a reality check. A typical male executive may be able to easily pass on a risky promotion, but for a woman that sees few opportunities to advance, nearing the fringe of the glass cliff could be indeed worth the risk.

What to Consider Before Taking a Risky Senior Position?

For women considering a tricky executive-level promotion, it’s important to factor the level of risk into salary negotiations to help secure an appropriately competitive salary. Also, having a good idea of what performance metrics look like in the role can also help to level expectations.

Similarly, taking the time to carefully analyze company reports and industry trends can help prevent unpleasant surprises. Moreover, as a strong support system is rarely guaranteed with the advancement to a risky executive role, women in these situations should prioritize building a reliable cross-departmental network of support.

In other words, it pays to have people in your corner. With a bit of dedicated research and perhaps even consulting with a company’s HR department prior to taking on a risky promotion, women professionals can succeed in precarious roles and encourage positive change in struggling companies all the while.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that there’s no shame in walking away from a leadership role if the risk is too great. That’s especially true because women CEOs that are ousted typically are not given a second opportunity to lead a different company. For even more ways to navigate the glass cliff, check out the below infographic from Fundera.

Glass Cliff Infographic

What is the Glass Cliff?

What are your thoughts on the glass cliff phenomenon? Did you know this is happening before today?

16 thoughts on “The Truth about the Glass Cliff and Women Leaders”

    1. No more barriers – I agree with wanting that vision, Resa! Sorry you were in the spammy folder, hope it didn’t stink too much in there!

  1. Every time I read one of your articles, I come away feeling inspired. ♥ Brilliant writer you are, Christy!

    I’ll be honest, I was familiar with the glass ceiling but not glass cliff. Very interesting read! I think this is why I get so excited when I hear about a woman entrepreneur who is really making it work and creating a strong, powerful presence for herself. The hostility so many women face in the workplace is unreal. It deeply saddens (and angers) me, as I know it does you too.

    Thank you for enlightening me on a very important topic. You’re awesome. ☺

    1. Hi Holly, yes grrrr the topics sometimes are tough to write about! And you’re not alone in not knowing about the glass cliff, which is why this one had to be published to spread the word to start making change. You’re pretty aswesome yourself!!

    1. Thank you, Terri. That means a lot to me. The more people that share this type of information, the more likely we will get positive change. xx

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