How the Glass Cliff Is Designed to Hold Women Back at Work

How the Glass Cliff Is Designed to Hold Women Back at Work

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You’ve probably heard of the glass ceiling when it comes to women in the workplace, but the “glass cliff” is just as harmful.

Whereas the glass ceiling is a metaphor for the barrier women face in the workplace, the “glass cliff” builds on that idea — it’s the phenomenon in which female executives are only given leadership roles in seemingly impossible situations like crises, economic collapses or negative public relations incidents. Women are seen as the right choice to clean up a mess, but not to lead when times are good. Even today, there are recent examples of this including Marissa Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo, Jill Soltau‘s time overseeing the collapse of J.C. Penney, Peggy Johnson at Magic Leap and Heyward Donigan at Rite Aid.

The glass cliff phenomenon is further backed by academic research:

  • Researchers at the University of Exeter found that women are more likely to be appointed as CEOs in companies that have performed poorly in the past, compared to men.
  • Columbia Business School found that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions in companies that are in crisis, compared to men. The study also found that women are less likely to be appointed to leadership positions in companies that are performing well.
  • McKinsey & Company consistently finds that women are underrepresented in leadership positions across industries, with only 38% of manager-level positions being held by women.

These statistics demonstrate the existence of the glass cliff phenomenon, which can set women up for failure in leadership positions due to the difficult circumstances they are often appointed under.

How do you spot a potential glass cliff situation and what do you do to prevent it from happening at your organization?

Related: 6 Ways to Better Support Women in the Workplace

Pay attention to when and how women are promoted

More often, women are promoted in situations that are less attractive to the majority group (often men). These could be situations where despite the best effort, chances of success are low.

If women are promoted in roles that feel more challenging than the roles that men are often promoted into, you might have a problem. This is especially important for leaders to pay attention to and address. Keep your radar up for potential glass cliff situations and ask if this were a man, would we approach this the same way?

Amplify the experiences of women in your network

Often, women are not given credit for their work equitably to men. Watch out for missed opportunities to give women leaders the credit they deserve for their good work. Make sure that their performance is incrementally rewarded with pay and promotional opportunities similar to men’s. You can measure promotion rates of genders and see how it compares to industry standards. Most commonly women are promoted at 86% of the rate that men are promoted based on equal merit. McKinsey & Company calls this the “broken rung.”

Set goals to increase the representation of women in leadership

Once you’re paying attention and measuring promotion rates, it’s important to set goals — not quotas. Quotas can create a zero-sum game mentality where men feel like women are only promoted based on their gender. Goals create a win-win opportunity. As women advance, so do profitability and opportunities for all genders.

Related: If You Want More Women in Leadership, You Have to Enact Concerted Change. Here’s How.

Develop objective leadership selection criteria

Begin by clearly defining the role you are hiring for, including the responsibilities, expectations and qualifications needed to succeed in the position. This will help you identify the specific skills and traits you are looking for in a candidate. Then, identify the key competencies that are essential for success in the role as well as performance indicators.

Consider using validated assessments, such as personality tests or cognitive ability tests, to measure a candidate’s abilities objectively. These assessments can provide insight into a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and help you make more informed hiring decisions. Be sure to review the criteria you have developed to ensure that they are fair, relevant and unbiased. Consider involving a diverse group of stakeholders in the review process to ensure that different perspectives are taken into account.

Ensure balanced interview and interviewee slates

For any open leadership position, it is critical to have a sourcing strategy that ensures you are reaching a diverse pool of candidates. This may involve using job boards, social media, networking events, employee referrals and other channels to attract a wide range of applicants. Screen candidates objectively by using the objective selection criteria you have developed. This will help ensure that all candidates are evaluated based on the same set of standards rather than by outdated gender biases.

Some organizations screen resumes to remove any identifying information, such as names, addresses and schools, to reduce the potential for bias in the hiring and promotion processes. Be sure to Interview a diverse slate of candidates and mirror diverse representation with interviewers to attract a range of perspectives and experiences.

Remove systemic gender biases

The maternal wall is the largest area of gender bias against women where people assume women are caregivers and men are providers. This results and decreased opportunities for women and often the prime years of their careers.

Start by recognizing and addressing biases related to caregiving responsibilities, such as assuming that women are more likely to take time off for caregiving or that men are not interested in or capable of taking on caregiving responsibilities. While this gender stereotype may be true often, workplace dynamics and family roles are shifting.

Related: To See More Women in Leadership Roles, Here’s What Needs to Happen

What to do as an ally

You might be thinking this is great, but I’m just an individual contributor or one person in a massive organization. What can I do to influence change?

Consider these ideas:

  • Challenge your leadership team to be accountable for gender issues in the workplace
  • Question promotional decisions that put women in more challenging circumstances where success is unlikely
  • Mentor, sponsor and advocate for women (especially women of color) that are more marginalized so that they are proactively equipped to lead when opportunities become available

With the percentage of female CEOs leading corporate America at just 10%, we can do better. The glass cliff prevents women from being effective leaders and can hurt future generations’ chances of increasing representation. Learn how you can spot the glass cliff and how to prevent it from occurring in your organization. Collectively, our actions matter as allies.

Unicorn Desk

Unicorn Desk is the official writer for Unicorn Weekly Magazine, serving as a creative force behind the captivating narratives and engaging articles that grace its pages. With a unique blend of talent, passion, and commitment, Unicorn Desk brings an unparalleled level of expertise and dedication to their role as a key contributor to the magazine.

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