The Glass Cliff
For women, it means moving into the most perilous posts in organizational leadership
/School Administrator, March 2020

From left, Alison Cook, Alicia Ingersoll and Christy Glass celebrate Ingersoll’s doctoral graduation from Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
Women enter the workforce in roughly the same numbers as men, though the inequities in advancement start with the very first promotion.

Last year, Barron’s named Mary Barra one of the world’s best CEOs for leading a turnaround of General Motors. Yet consider what she confronted at the time of her appointment by the corporate board in January 2014. She was immediately hit with recalls on millions of GM automobiles, embroiled in a safety scandal over defective ignition switches and ordered to testify in congressional hearings.

Julia Pierson was named director of the U.S. Secret Service after security breaches and a prostitution scandal by U.S. agents in Columbia. After giving her only a brief tenure of a year and a half, The White House replaced her amid continued concerns over security.

A report by McKinsey and, “Women in the Workplace 2019,” found for every 100 men promoted to that first manage-rial role, only 72 women were promoted. This early discrepancy has a magnifying effect by the time we look at senior-level positions. Our own research has examined mechanisms that either facilitate or hinder women’s advancement to top organizational leadership positions.

One mechanism we have studied in depth is a phenomenon termed the “glass cliff.” The glass cliff suggests that women are more likely than men to be appointed to top leadership positions in organizations that are struggling, in crisis or at risk to fail. This phenomenon holds in organizational leadership across various fields and industries in both the public and corporate sectors. Glass cliff appointments are plentiful across the spectrum as are examples of women succeeding and women failing after being put in a perilous spot.

Differing Qualities
Why might this be the case? One explanation is that highly qualified white men simply may not want these jobs. The positions are risky with a high probability of failure. Women, on the other hand, may be more willing to accept the risk out of fear that another opportunity may not come their way.

An alternative explanation, though, is that women bring different qualities to the position that tend to be more valued during a time of crisis. For example, some stereotypical female qualities would include emotional sensitivity, strong interpersonal skills, collaborative and inclusive leadership styles, and capabilities for boosting morale. Such qualities may make women candidates more appealing to key decision makers when the organization faces tough challenges.

Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox from August 2001 until mid-2009, is an example of a glass cliff appointment. When she was installed as CEO, Xerox was near bankruptcy and going through one of the nation’s largest accounting scandals up to that point. Their corporate stock price was in free fall, and employee morale was at an all-time low. Mulcahy was selected by the board of directors to lead Xerox out of crisis not because of her technical skills (she had spent most of her career in either sales or human resources), but because of the qualities she brought.

Being a “lifer” at Xerox, she had built tremendous relationships, was known as an honest and forthright person, and had demonstrated her loyalty and love of the organization. Because of this, she was able to effectively communicate across divisions, solicit and receive honest feedback, and inspire her people to work toward a common vision. Mulcahy’s turnaround of Xerox is considered one of the great leadership feats of the early 2000s.

Other glass cliff appointees have not been as fortunate. Sheri McCoy took over as CEO of Avon during a time of disappointing performance, pressures from a $10.7 billion takeover offer and an overseas bribery scandal. After failing to remedy the dismal performance, she was terminated from the position. Furthermore, at the time of her termination, the stock market value for Avon was $1.3 billion, a far cry from the unsolicited takeover offer five years earlier.

And if a woman CEO fails to save the struggling organization, it derails her career. McCoy is illustrative of this derailment. Prior to Avon, she was a star at Johnson & Johnson, but now she is removed totally from corporate America. This example is consistent with prior research we have conducted, which finds that women in these situations move on to nonprofit boards, philanthropic work or simply retire from it all. Our work also found that if women do not succeed in their glass cliff appointment, they are likely replaced by traditional white male leaders, a phenomenon we termed the “savior effect.”

Accepting Risks
Though most work on the glass cliff examines that final promotion to the top organizational position, we found, through interviews, that women experience glass cliff-type situations throughout their career. Moreover, we found that many women, by their own choosing, seek out these risky assignments. Knowing they are highly visible as women but not necessarily as leaders, these successful women sought out challenging, visible and risky assignments to prove their leadership ability. By taking these assignments, they established themselves as transformational leaders, turnaround artists and successful crisis managers.

This strategy not only is reflective of a higher performance standard for women than for men, it also leads to the accumulation of an extraordinary skill set. Given the cascading effects of more men than women being promoted at every stage, women in top leadership positions is a rarity in itself. And to reach this stage, women have to be exceptional.

Susan Ivey Cameron served as CEO of Reynolds American from 2004 to 2011. Wanting to spend more time traveling with her husband and participating in philanthropic endeavors, she retired. Reynolds American, working on a large and complex acquisition in 2014, asked Cameron to return as CEO to lead them through this challenging situation. She had developed a unique skill set not easily matched by another.

The glass cliff phenomenon suggests that women, when appointed to these top positions, start at a deficit. In addition, not only are they expected to overcome the challenges and succeed in the crisis situation, they may have to do so with heightened scrutiny, performance pressures, lack of support and challenges to their authority.

Cultural schemas associate leadership with masculinity, thus providing assumptions about the type of person that can successfully fulfill a leadership role. These schemas distort evaluations of women’s ability to lead, resulting in negative evaluations of women regardless of their level of preparedness, ability and performance. Women leaders, being a rarity, are highly visible and their performance is constantly scrutinized. For instance, women are evaluated negatively when they speak more than their peers. Men, on the other hand, are positively evaluated.

The same holds true for women and men engaging in self-promotion. Indeed, despite the association with effective leadership, women are negatively evaluated for displaying any form of dominant or authoritative behavior. Thus, women leaders are left to navigate a fine line between perceptions of acting like a leader and acting like a woman.

Also, given women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions in many professional fields and perceptions of their leadership capabilities, they may experience subtle or overt resistance to their authority and a general lack of support. Work has shown that women, especially in male-dominated jobs, experience less peer and work-related support than their male peers. Additionally, women do not enjoy the same level of social and professional networks as men. Given networks are a key resource known to increase one’s influence, not having this access undermines leadership efforts.

Salience of Stereotypes
These factors are highly connected. If women start in a position during a time of crisis and they lack the support or authority to accomplish what they need to, then they may be increasingly vulnerable to scrutiny and performance pressures. This, in turn, can result in shorter tenures for women leaders. It’s bad for organizations because, as our work has shown, women who reach these top positions are exceptional in terms of their skill set and leadership capabilities.

To address these challenges, more women need to be in top leadership positions. By increasing the number of women in leadership, the level of scrutiny will diminish by lessening the salience of gender stereotypes and gender differences. Through this integration, women will become less visible as women, a greater variety of leadership styles will be accepted, and the pressure on women leaders will be reduced.

ALISON COOK is professor of management at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. ALICIA INGERSOLL is professional practice assistant professor and CHRISTY GLASS is professor of sociology, both at Utah State University.