What Is The Glass Cliff? 7 Ways Female Business Leaders Can Avoid Falling Off

Everyone has likely heard of the proverbial glass ceiling: the barrier that separates the earning potential of men and women. Unfortunately, while enterprising women everywhere seem to be making strides to shatter the glass ceiling, progress has been slower than we would like to acknowledge.

That is not to say that gains have not been made. For example, board membership of women in Fortune 500 companies has tripled in the last 20 years (from 10% in 1995 to more than 30% in 2017). But female representation in the highest levels of executive life is still woefully inadequate.

Women represented just 6.4% of CEOs in 2017. This was the highest it had ever been, but there are pitfalls associated with efforts made toward this kind of equity and inclusion. Tellingly, that number actually went down over the past year, potentially due to a phenomenon known as the glass cliff.

What is The Glass Cliff?

A term initially put forward by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, of the University of Exeter, the glass cliff is characterized by a company elevating a female leader as an agent of change when they are facing a difficult transition or challenging period. It is staggering to see how often, in the midst of turmoil, companies look to female leadership.

Ryan and Haslam demonstrate conclusively that women are brought into particularly difficult management situations, something that only serves to set powerful women up for failure. By inheriting a precarious position, women who are appointed during this time are seen as ineffective when they cannot immediately produce positive results.  

These women are, most often, subsequently replaced with men, who are looked at as saviors after female leadership was unsuccessful in quickly fixing the issues that they had been saddled with. In a study of Fortune 500 companies, out of 608 women leaving executive positions, only 4 were succeeded by another woman. This highlights an incredibly unfair double-standard that perpetuates the idea that women are somehow less qualified for these positions, and it just goes to show with every step up, there is a long drop down.

Avoiding the Glass Cliff

So, how to approach the cliff without falling off? It requires understanding that women need to develop a level of empowerment and advocacy that male counterparts do not. Avoiding the glass cliff starts in the hiring process.

  • Negotiate without compromise: it has been shown that women are 4x less likely to negotiate their hiring package. By understanding what a position is worth, it is possible to be in the best position to be hired at the correct rate.
  • Ask for a definition of success: By inquiring about goals you are less likely to be blindsided by additional metrics. This provides a reference point that can be used to defend against unrealistic expectations which undergird the glass cliff phenomenon.
  • Understand what the issues are: If the situation seems to be a precarious one, it’s crucial to know what the elements are of the current crisis and to understand if there is an action plan already in place to combat the difficulties.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away: Being set up for failure will be a more terrible blow than a simple “no, thank you.” If the position looks like it skirts the edge of a precipice, perhaps this is not the time to take it on.

Women have enough trouble being taken seriously for simple business tasks like getting business loans and making sure they are getting a fair wage. The complete unfairness surrounding adding the illusion of success, only for it to be stripped away isn’t a surprising reality, but surely is a disappointing one. This, however, just paints another picture in the way women have to remain vigilant in the business world and work harder to get a fair share.

See the infographic below from Fundera for more information on the glass cliff and how to avoid its precipice.

What is the Glass Cliff?

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  1. Pingback: What Is The Glass Cliff? 7 Ways Female Business Leaders Can Avoid Falling Off – The Womens Edge

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