Women, leadership and the glass cliff

Written by
James Meachin

02 Aug 2016

02 Aug 2016 • by James Meachin

The glass cliff

While the glass ceiling means that women are still less likely than men to progress into senior leadership positions, researchers have found that, in times of crisis, women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions. This is known as the ‘glass cliff’ as it carries an increased risk of failure and criticism.

For example, researchers examined the share price performance of FTSE 100 companies immediately before and after the appointment of a male or female board member. They found that when companies appointed men to their boards of directors, share price performance was relatively stable before the appointment. However, companies that appointed a woman had experienced consistently poor performance in the months preceding the appointment. In essence, men and women were being appointed to directorships under very different circumstances, with different likelihoods of success.

Cleaning up the mess

Why does this happen? In part, glass cliff appointments reflect gender stereotypes - that women are peculiarly suited to crisis management. This is clear from recent commentary regarding women politicians. Bloomberg recently ran an article titled ‘Women Are Cleaning Up Britain’s Brexit Mess’, whilst Baroness Jenkin of Kennington was quoted by The Guardian discussing the Conservative Party leadership contest: “I think they [the country] feel that at a time of turmoil, a woman will be more practical and a bit less testosterone [driven] in their approach. More collaborative, more willing to listen to voices around the table, less likely to have an instantly aggressive approach to things.”

Consistent with these views, researchers have found that in times of success, stereotypically male attributes are seen as being most important for the selection of a future leader; yet in times of crisis, stereotypically female attributes matter most for leader selection. 

When opportunity knocks

A second driver of the glass cliff effect is that crisis situations are seen as providing women (but not men) with good leadership opportunities. They are more likely to be construed by decision makers as ‘golden opportunities’ than as ‘poisoned chalices’. This is exacerbated by the relative lack of leadership opportunities for women - while men who are invited to take-up a leadership role in a crisis may feel able to decline the invitation and ‘wait for something better to come along’, women may have no such luxury and be encouraged to ‘take whatever they can get’.

The result is that when women do take-up senior leadership roles, they are more likely than men to have to deal with crisis situations, with a greater chance of failure. In addition, a psychological effect called the ‘fundamental attribution error’ means that in seeking to explain the reasons for failure, people tend to focus on individual characteristics of the leader, rather than the situational and contextual challenges that affect the organisation. As such, compared to men, women who assume leadership positions can be more exposed to criticism.

Data driven talent

A key take-away is that the glass cliff effect is most likely to occur when stereotypes influence appointment decisions. Talent moves, especially for senior leadership roles, need to be driven by objective, rich and relevant data. This provides a platform for talent and resourcing specialists to make a real impact – by ensuring long-term succession plans are in place, by systematically collating performance data, by putting in place a strong due diligence processes to inform appointments, and by ensuring that HR has the insights and the influence to shape decisions at the top table.