Understanding the Glass Cliff

By Michelle Ryan
2017 Women’s Leadership Conference Executive Summit Guest Presenter

Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology/Dean of Postgraduate Research
University of Exeter, UK
Professor of Diversity
University of Groningen, The Netherlands 

The glass cliff refers to the phenomenon whereby women are more likely than men to be appointed to leadership positions that are risky. My colleague Prof Alex Haslam and I coined the phrase in 2003 in response to newspaper article from the front page of the business section of The Times. The article reported statistics that suggested that FTSE 100 companies that had the most women on their boards of directors tended to perform the least well in terms of their average annual share price. On this basis, the article suggested that women were “wreaking havoc’ within organizations and concluded that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on board”.

Such a conclusion is clearly a significant setback to those who argue for the promotion of gender equality at the top of organizations. However, as social scientists our first reaction was to question the strong conclusion made in the article because the evidence that it reported was entirely correlational. It is possible that while having more women on boards of directors and poor share price performance may be associated, the causal claim that women cause poor company could be unfounded. Indeed, we theorized that a very different casual relationship could be at play, such that women may be more likely to secure leadership positions only when companies are doing poorly.

To examine this alternative hypothesis we decided to conduct in-depth archival research to fully examine the data that were reported in The Times. We examined the share-price performance of all nineteen companies that had appointed women to their boards of directors in the previous year, as well the performance of a matched sample of companies that had appointed men. The results clearly demonstrated that while the appointment of women did coincide with poor company performance, their appointment tended to be preceded by a period of consistent poor share-price performance, rather than performance declining after women were appointed. Importantly, there was no evidence of a similar pattern for men.

These results demonstrated that while women were clearing breaking through the glass ceiling, it was also clear that the types of positions they were taking on were very different from that of their male counterparts. More specifically, we interpreted the data as suggesting that women were being appointed to positions of leadership that could be seen as relatively precarious as a consequence of the poor track record of company performance. We argued that such circumstances made it likely that women’s leadership would be placed under a close scrutiny and that they risked shouldering the blame for problems set in train long before their appointment, as clearly exemplified by the in original Times article.

To illustrate this phenomenon we coined the term the glass cliff to describe the potential precariousness of women leadership positions. The metaphor evokes a women who has reached the heights of senior leadership, but nonetheless finds herself teetering on the edge. The term has been shown to resonate with the experiences of a many women in business, and has also been seen in politics, in education, in policing, and in law; indeed, there are examples of glass cliffs in every realm in which there are leadership positions.

Michelle Ryan will be speaking to this phenomenon, among other topics, in her address ‘Women, Balance and Identity’ at the invitation-only Executive Women’s Summit at the 2017 ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference