The Glass Cliff
March 01, 2020
Appears in March 2020: School Administrator.
For women, it means moving into the most perilous posts in organizational leadership
Women enter the workforce in roughly the same numbers as men, though the inequities in advancement start with the very first promotion.
Last year, Barron’s named Mary Barra one of the world’s best CEOs for leading a turnaround of General Motors. Yet consider what she confronted at the time of her appointment by the corporate board in January 2014. She was immediately hit with recalls on millions of GM automobiles, embroiled in a safety scandal over defective ignition switches and ordered to testify in congressional hearings.
Julia Pierson was named director of the U.S. Secret Service after security breaches and a prostitution scandal by U.S. agents in Columbia. After giving her only a brief tenure of a year and a half, The White House replaced her amid continued concerns over security.
A report by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, “Women in the Workplace 2019,” found for every 100 men promoted to that first managerial role, only 72 women were promoted. This early discrepancy has a magnifying effect by the time we look at senior-level positions. Our own research has examined mechanisms that either facilitate or hinder women’s advancement to top organizational leadership positions.
One mechanism we have studied in depth is a phenomenon termed the “glass cliff.” The glass cliff suggests that women are more likely than men to be appointed to top leadership positions in organizations that are struggling, in crisis or at risk to fail. This phenomenon holds in organizational leadership across various fields and industries in both the public and corporate sectors. Glass cliff appointments are plentiful across the spectrum as are examples of women succeeding and women failing after being put in a perilous spot.
About the Authors
Alison Cook is professor of management at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
Alicia Ingersoll is professional practice assistant professor and Christy Glass is professor of sociology, both at Utah State University.
A Fitting 'Glass Cliff' Story
School Administrator asked Alison Cook, who has studied the glass cliff phenomenon over a 15-year period as a professor of management at Utah State University, to comment on the scenario about the female superintendent described by Terre Davis.
She says the depiction “fits perfectly” with the findings of her work more broadly in organizational leadership. “At the onset, she enters a situation with an initial crisis — the strike — which likely was some time in the making. She had a unique skill set that solved the crisis more quickly than the all-male board expected. And from the sounds of it, she wasn’t given much support from the board during this crisis.”
Cook says the story shared by Davis aligns well with one of her research projects that involved interviewing a wide spectrum of women leaders. She says: “A woman takes on a risky situation, but she does so with less authority and support than would a male counterpart, and she is also under intense scrutiny. So regardless of her performance, it seems she never had full support from the board and, despite all the gains, they scrutinized other aspects of her performance until they felt justified to dismiss her.
“So it sort of seems like she succeeded at her glass cliff appointment (the initial crisis of the strike) but fell victim to other barriers women face.”
Cook suggests the story of the school board not wanting to hire a woman because the last woman in the superintendency failed is an example of the extreme visibility women face. “If a man failed, no one would ever say, ‘Let’s not hire another man,’” she says. “But when women fail, they fail for a whole gender.”
— JAY P. GOLDMAN