The glass cliff: why women rise to leadership positions during crises

There is a peculiar tendency for women to be chosen for leadership positions at times of crisis. This is putting the future of female leadership at risk

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Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo in 2012, just as the company was falling into decline

After more than a century of male leadership, car manufacturing giant General Motors became embroiled in a scandal as it emerged a design flaw was putting its customers at risk. In 2014 – in the middle of the crisis – Mary T Barra was promoted to clean up the mess. A similar story can be found in Silicon Valley, when Marissa Mayer took the top position at Yahoo in 2012, just as the company was falling into a dramatic decline. In an altogether separate setting, Theresa May became the UK’s first female prime minister for 26 years in July 2016, ready to preside over the country’s fraught break-up negotiations with the European Union.

These are textbook examples of what has become known as the ‘glass cliff’, a phenomenon that sees women more likely to be chosen for leadership roles when the task at hand is considered risky. Anecdotal examples like May, Barra and Mayer are certainly easy to come by, but the glass cliff has also been verified by a growing body of evidence. It has been shown to infiltrate leadership structures in all corners of society, infecting schools, Fortune 500 companies and political institutions. While much of the research on the subject focuses on women, it has also been found to apply to other minority groups.

Inevitably, these precarious roles make those in question more likely to fail during their tenures. At a time when women and minorities are being promoted to more leadership positions than ever, their progress risks being seriously undermined by the nature of the roles they undertake.

Don’t look down
The glass cliff phenomenon is particularly dangerous due to the fact a correlation-causation slip-up is all too easy to make. Take the following piece of evidence: female CEOs are more likely to be sacked than their male counterparts. According to a study by management consulting company Strategy&, 38 percent of female CEOs have been forced out in the last 10 years, while only 27 percent of their male counterparts’ tenures came to the same sticky end. Such evidence can easily be twisted in a way that paints a negative picture of female leadership, fortifying already skewed stereotypes about women.

Women’s progress risks being seriously undermined by the nature of the roles
they undertake

European CEO spoke to Alex Haslam, who explained how he came to coin the term ‘glass cliff’ in 2004: “The basic thing that triggered it was reading an article in The Times, which made some pretty outrageous claims about the negative impact that women leaders had on company performance on the basis of faulty causal inference.”

One commentator made a particularly ugly correlation-causation blunder in a report run by the UK newspaper 15 years ago, claiming: “The triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has… wreaked havoc on company performance.” The article presented data demonstrating the appointment of women coincided with poor company performance, coming to the conclusion that women are best kept away from boardrooms.

Testing times
Since the article was published, research into this correlation has unearthed a wealth of important findings surrounding the way gender dynamics influence leadership decisions. For example, a deeper investigation into the evidence used in the report by The Times uncovered that, rather than causing negative performance, female appointments were more likely to be preceded by a period of poor company performance. The implication of this observation forms the basis of the glass cliff concept that women tend to rise to the top against a backdrop of crisis or decline. A range of different research approaches has consistently reinforced this notion.

For one, Utah State University investigated CEO appointments at Fortune 500 companies over the past 15 years, with the resulting research finding businesses are much more likely to choose a woman for the top job when the company is performing poorly. The phenomenon is also at play in politics: a study from the University of Exeter examined the UK’s 2005 general election and found that women were more likely to be chosen to run for hard-to-win seats.

But, according to Haslam, the most telling evidence comes in the form of controlled experiments. Haslam himself conducted a series of such experiments in a study back in 2008. His experiments each devised a hypothetical hiring decision, asking participants whom they would choose for a leadership role out of a series of candidates.

The participants, who consisted of a variety of business leaders, management graduates and high school students, were presented with a choice of three CVs: an underqualified male, a qualified male and a qualified female. Groups were then randomly assigned information detailing whether the organisation in question was performing well or poorly. The results ultimately found that, when faced with an organisation in crisis, people consistently favoured female candidates over male candidates.

One of the central issues related to women taking precarious roles is the inevitability they become linked with the outcomes that unfold

One such scenario, which was presented to students, asked participants to choose a youth consultant for a music festival. Out of those told the festival was doing poorly, 75 percent preferred the female candidate. Meanwhile, just 38 percent chose the same female candidate when they were told the festival was performing well.

Similar results were found when university students were presented with the choice of a new financial director for a hypothetical company. When presented with information suggesting the company’s performance was improving, 57 percent of the students preferred the female candidate. This proportion jumped to 87 percent when the groups were told the company was performing badly.

Glass foundation
The task of understanding the root cause of the problem has spurred a broad research effort. According to Haslam, who has been involved from the beginning, we have now come a long way in terms of understanding the processes at play.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no single explanation for the phenomenon. One theory is that women receive fewer opportunities than men, making them more likely to accept risky positions. And yet, this cannot account for the fact people actively single out women for roles associated with crisis situations. Another idea is it could be the result of outright sexism, with people simply singling women out for inferior positions.

The reality, however, is probably murkier than this. One approach posits the phenomenon is related to ingrained assumptions about men and women. For example, one study found women are more likely to be associated with the traits considered useful in a crisis. The study asked participants about the desirability of certain traits in various scenarios. Words used to describe traditionally masculine characteristics like ‘assertive’, ‘forceful’ and ‘adventurous’ were often seen as desirable at times of success, while terms often regarded as feminine, like ‘tactful’, ‘courteous’ and ‘understanding’, were often seen as being more useful during times of crisis.

Complicating things further, there is also evidence suggesting the phenomenon can be traced back to the classic ‘old boys’ club’ problem. On this logic, men in senior positions prefer to hire ‘in-group’ members for the cushy jobs, while happily falling back on women when a job is considered risky. Perhaps as an extension of the same kind of process, some argue women are seen as more expendable, and are therefore put forward for risky roles as scapegoats.

While progress has been made, Haslam noted the broader picture is still lacking: “There is a long way to go when it comes to understanding the dynamics surrounding the way that women’s leadership experiences pan out. For this, we will need to get high-quality longitudinal data – and that is harder to get than one might think.”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has faced much opposition since taking the position in the wake of the Brexit vote

Navigating the cliff
Asking Haslam whether he feels there is anything an individual can do, he responded: “I think there’s plenty people can do – not least by raising awareness of the fact [by saying] ‘we have a problem here’.”

Indeed, on a surface level, it can be empowering to women to discover the phenomenon exists. Ama Marston, a strategy, leadership and transformative resilience expert who has worked extensively on women’s leadership issues, told European CEO: “Some of the women that I have worked with have felt a weight lifted in retrospect when their experience is placed within the wider context of the glass cliff phenomenon… They are often so ensconced in their own scenarios that they don’t have the bird’s eye view.”

One of the central issues related to women taking precarious roles is the inevitability they become linked with the outcomes that unfold. Marston said: “The question is, given that it is happening, how do we take these leadership hires and turn them into genuine opportunities for women leaders and make them succeed?”

Vitally, taking on a difficult role doesn’t necessarily mean failure is inevitable. According to Marston, while part of the issue comes down to deep-rooted structural problems, there is a lot that can be done at an organisational level to support women, such as the company culture and the attitude adopted by the board of directors.

Marston said: “I want to highlight that success for women in leadership ultimately should not come down to ‘fixing women’. We need to spark a process of transformative change within the business world that offers broader opportunities for women leaders, and when they do take on leadership in crisis, that supports them and helps them to be successful.” Yet, together with Haslam, she emphasised that awareness and understanding of the issue is fundamental.

The work that has gone into understanding the issue has been effective in raising some crucial questions about women’s experience in the workplace. However, there is still a long way to go in establishing greater recognition of both the glass cliff itself and the unhealthy gender dynamics that it embodies.

Having appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year Shortlist for 2016, awareness of the concept is certainly gaining momentum. But as with the now well-worn term ‘glass ceiling’, it is only through improving visibility of the issue – both at an organisational level and more broadly – that the important questions it uncovers will be addressed.