We have all heard about the glass ceiling but have you been reading about the Glass Cliff this week in the news?

If you haven’t – let me explain.

The Glass Cliff is where men subconsciously pull back from risky jobs, and women are appointed to these roles, often being sought out for the role.  These are the problem jobs – CEO of a company on the brink of disaster, manager of the ‘problem’ team.  Or here is the Wikipedia definition

“The glass cliff is a term that describes the phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and women political election candidates, being likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.”

This is a fairly recently coined term, and there has been little research about it – except for some brilliant work coming out of the University of Exeter. This research shows that women are far more likely to be promoted to a senior role during a time of crisis, or in a downturn.  At these times boards are more open to appointing something other than the traditional white male CEO.  I guess the feeling is – well exceptional times call for exceptional actions! 

The trouble with this of course is that emergency situations can’t always be turned around.  If they are then the CEO is the hero, but if they are not – then the CEO if often the one for the chop – and this has been born out by the figures on those forced out of office in the last 10 years – 27% men compared to 38% women.

Looking at some previous casualties who fell off the cliff – we see Andrea Jung – former CEO of Avon, and Carol Bartz of Yahoo. 

So why do more women than men get offered / take potential ‘glass cliff’ positions?  There is some evidence to suggest it is because they see it as their one opportunity to get the top job, many opportunities being closed off to them.  Boards have a propensity to want to hire board members with ‘experience’ – experience meaning the same sort of experience that they have.  Therefore, hiring more of the same.  All male all white boards, tend to pick white males for the next appointment. 

To be fair the UK is leading the way in improvements in this area – but look beneath the surface and you will find that although there are a reported 31% non exec women on FTSE 100 boards only 9.7% are executive and the figures are worse for the FTSE 250, with only 5% in exec Director positions (May 2016 Board Watch).

The danger of more women taking these riskier CEO positions is that they are by nature more likely to lead to failure, and then it becomes a gender failure perpetuating the belief held (or subliminally held by some) that women are not suited to the top jobs.

And those female CEO’s who do succeed – well some do it by out ‘manning’ the men.  Marissa Mayer – the current CEO of Yahoo, has been criticised by the media for only taking 2 weeks off on maternity leave and stopping all working from home.

I find it interesting that in 2005 only men were in the race for leader of the conservative party.  Whereas in 2016 40% of the candidates were women.  Quite a risky job isn’t it – leading the UK out of Europe.  I wish Theresa May well, but if she is perceived to ‘fail’ I wonder how likely it would be for her to be replaced by another woman? 

So – should women turn down ‘Glass Cliff’ opportunities? 

Absolutely not.  But they may be wise to look at more than just the title and the pay.   How many of the senior executives are currently women?  What support structure is in place?  What mentorship programmes can be put in place to bring other women through the ranks quickly, and how quickly can relationships be built and cemented with the current board.  Forewarned is forearmed.

If you don’t think any of the above is a problem, that’s probably because you don’t work for a large company.  Most small companies are much better at being agile, appointing diversely and of course, if you own your own business you may not be appointing a CEO any time soon!   Interesting though, isn’t it?



Carole Fossey

Founder www.carolefossey.com  and www.strategysocialmedia.co.uk

[email protected]