The Glass Cliff


The glass ceiling is a metaphor was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women. Now, that we’ve essentially shattered that believe there’s a new term on the rise. The glass cliff. A supposed phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and female political election candidates, being likelier than men to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.

The term was coined in 2004 by British professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of University of Exeter, United Kingdom. In a study, Ryan and Haslam examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members, and found that companies that appointed women to their boards were likelier than others to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months. This work eventually developed into the identification of a phenomenon known as the glass cliff. Since the term originated, its use has expanded beyond the corporate world to also encompass politics and other domains.

Ryan and Haslam’s research showed that once women break through the glass ceiling and take on positions of leadership they often have experiences that are different from those of their male counterparts. More specifically, women are more likely to occupy positions that are precarious and thus have a higher risk of failure—either because they are appointed to lead organizations (or organizational units) that are in crisis or because they are not given the resources and support needed for success.

But what is refreshing now that we’ve heard the male perspective is the female point of view.

“There are many incompetent men. Women, to attain these top positions have really fine-tuned their skill sets.” – Female executive interviewed by Glass and Cook

It is tempting to turn down the job right after a CEO is fired and the ship is sinking. However, you are exactly what the sinking ship needs. Women are more likely to outperform male leaders on interpersonal skills and cooperation, and are more likely to exhibit characteristics associated with transformational leadership such as inspirational motivation, going beyond one’s own needs and a focus on high-quality relationships.

Through these perils we should keep in mind what Rupi Kaur, Canadian feminist poet asks:

What’s the greatest lesson a woman should learn?
that since day one, she’s already had everything
she needs within herself. It’s the world that convinced her she did not

So, pick up the glass of champagne, take a drink and get to work. The road might be a little rockier and a little more painful than for your male CEO colleagues, but you can do it.

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