What Is The Glass Cliff? And What Can You Do About It?

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Women have been talking about the glass ceiling for decades, but have you heard about the glass cliff? This term describes the phenomenon where women are promoted to positions of power only during times of company turmoil, when risk of failure is greatest.

Over the last 50 years women have been working hard to close the gender gap in business. Women earn more graduate degrees than men, secure business loans to launch their own startups, and work hard to shatter the glass ceiling and climb up the corporate ladder at the world’s top companies.


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The glass ceiling deters many women in business from pursuing their career ambitions. One study revealed that, when starting their careers, 43% of women are determined to make it to a top management positions – but after two years, only 16% of women believe they’ll ever make it to the top.

Once  women do shatter this proverbial glass ceiling, they are often times introduced to the glass cliff. The glass cliff phenomenon was uncovered in 2004 and 15 years later, is still prevalent in many large companies and small businesses. In fact, the number of women who lead top Fortune 500 companies has actually declined over the past 15 years – today, only 4.8 percent are led by women.

Psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam conducted their research around the glass cliff after a blistering article in the U.K. Times that stated companies with women on boards of the London Stock Exchange performed poorly compared to companies led completely by men. After reading the article, Ryan and Haslam decided to take a closer look at the numbers. This  is when they discovered that the reason companies with women on their boards were performing worse is because only companies that were underperforming offered women opportunities to lead.

One high profile example of the glass cliff is Carly Fiorina, who would later run for President in the 2016 election after being ousted as CEO at Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina was appointed CEO at Hewlett-Packard as a transformational leader that would take the company in a new direction after low performance. She helped jump stock prices up 6.5% until the dot-com bubble burst. After she made a controversial decision to lay off 30,000 employees and pursue a merger, she became involved in a fight with board member Walter Hewlett and was subsequently fired. Upon reflection, the Hewlett-Packard board acknowledged that her merger would have been the right decision.

Some other high-profile examples of the glass cliff include Jill Abramson formerly of the New York Times and Carol Bartz, formerly of Yahoo.

Although the glass cliff is a tough pill for women in the workplace to swallow, the best way to avoid becoming another statistic is to prepare. Here are seven actionable tips you can take to avoid falling off:

  1. Know Your Company Numbers: You don’t want to discover your company is performing poorly after you’ve accepted a promotion. Always stay on top of your industry trends, company standings, and issues impacting your field so you don’t get surprised with a big mess.
  2. Include Risk in Your Salary Negotiations:  If It’s a risky career move, say so – and negotiate the risk in your salary negotiations. The extra money will cushion the blow if you do end up falling off the glass cliff. Men are 4x more likely to ask for a raise than women, so you’re doing yourself a disserve if you don’t negotiate.
  3. Define Success Before You Accept: Have the board set your performance standards before you accept the position, that way you can evaluate what the job expectations truly are. Have them include a timeframe for every expectation so you can decide if it’s within reason or if your position is set up to fail.
  4. Use Your Unique Position to Your Advantage: Despite what the U.K. Times said in 2004, women make great leaders. Use your unique perspective to your advantage as you lead! Women outrank men in 11 out of 12 emotional intelligence categories.
  5. Believe in Yourself: It’s better to make the wrong decision than no decision at all, so trust your gut when you take the lead. Decisiveness, rather than results, makes you 12x more likely to be considered a high-performing executive.
  6. Build a Network: As a woman, you know the importance of getting different voices in the room! Make friends in other departments and listen to what they have to say about your company’s processes. This will help you evaluate problem areas when you do take the lead and come up with quick fixes.
  7. Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away: If you evaluate your offer and the risk is too great, don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s much harder for ousted women CEO’s to get hired again at a top position, which is another risk factor you should take into consideration before you accept.

Check out our infographic from Fundera below for more ways to navigate the glass cliff.

The Glass Cliff

Infographic source: Fundera

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