Exploring the Glass Cliff

3 mins read

“We still have a very masculinized, white-dominant view of leadership. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mold is seen differently,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University. This pervasive bias was captured in professors Alexander Haslam and Michelle Ryan’s 2005 glass cliff theory. It describes a continuation of the better-known “glass ceiling” theory, a metaphor in sociology referring to invisible barriers that hinder women’s advancement in the workplace because of outdated expectations and heightened household responsibility. 

In many ways, women have shattered this “glass ceiling.” They are now enrolling in universities at higher rates than men–56% compared to 44%–and taking more leadership roles in historically male-dominated industries, such as computer science and finance. But gender biases in the workplace persist even after women achieve perceived success; the glass cliff theory analyzes how women in leadership roles are more likely than their male counterparts to be scrutinized or replaced. Women’s accomplishments are undermined frequently, and thus they are promoted less often.

“What often happens is that women are held to different or higher standards,” Cooper said. Companies that promote women to high-pressure positions—often for the first time in their history—are far more likely to be experiencing precarious circumstances, a detail critical to understanding the glass cliff theory. 

When these women put in charge of companies in crisis fail to turn them around, organizations blame their new leader instead of recognizing the systemic, pre-existing issues that more directly contributed to the failure. As a result, when companies are selecting for positions in the future, they are more likely to underestimate the skills of powerful women and default to another “stereotypical” male leader. Because their few experiences with female leadership were founded on an unequal playing field that set them up for failure, companies are less inclined to continue to promote women. 

The glass cliff is linked to a larger trend of women being held to impossible double standards in business and politics. Politicians are tasked with presenting themselves as both qualified and personable; female politicians must additionally toe the line between not being so nice they’re considered pushovers or so confident they’re considered overbearing—standards that men don’t face to nearly the same extent. While only 13% of people believe that men are better suited for politics than women, a woman caught in a scandal is typically punished more harshly than a similarly-situated man.

These issues disproportionately affect women of color. “The glass cliff is also for people of color—any group of people that aren’t as commonly culturally associated with leadership,” said Cooper. In 2020, after a push for diversity in the publishing industry, Simon & Schuster’s Dana Canedy became the first Black woman to lead a major publisher but soon left after the company received backlash for publishing the autobiography of Mike Pence. In the immediate aftermath of the January 6th insurrection and the resignation of the previous chief of police, Yogananda Pittman was appointed as the chief of the Capitol Police and became the first woman and African American to serve in that role. She left six months later.

Theresa May, the U.K.’s second female prime minister, took office immediately after the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and hardly held her seat for a month. The untraditional circumstances facing the U.K. inspired a historically untraditional leader, who was uniquely set up for failure. “Theresa May had inherited the biggest political challenge for any U.K. prime minister since 1945–and proved unequal to the task,” wrote Politico

Many leaders of prominent organizations have fallen off the glass cliff, such as women who lead the Secret Service, Yahoo, Reddit, Hewlett-Packard, Lehman Brothers, and CBS. The New York Times appointed their first female Editor-in-Chief when newspaper sales were down 73% in 2014. Boeing recently named their first-ever female CEO, Stephanie Pope. The previous CEO resigned amidst a safety crisis when the company was criticized for a door that fell off a plane midair.

The glass cliff theory does not claim that all promotions set up women for failure, nor that gender discrimination is too extensive for women to ever take the helm in the future. Rather than becoming trailblazers, female leaders often publicly fail as a result of pre-existing problems and wind up reinforcing negative stereotypes about women’s leadership. The glass cliff theory argues that gender-based discrimination is still very much alive in politics and the workplace, yet just as invisible as its predecessor.

Allegra Hoddie is a junior in her first year of journalism. She enjoys covering current events and the arts. She also makes Instagram posts, drinks lattes, and copyedits.

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