The glass ceiling is a prominent metaphor for opportunity discrepancies between genders in the workplace. Widely understood as an inability for women to receive further promotion once they reach a certain level of authority, the glass ceiling is a reminder that females and other minorities are often systematically expected to maintain mediocrity within their careers. This takes the form of women, or members of a minority group, not receiving promotions or opportunities after reaching a certain level of workplace accomplishment. Once they achieve a certain level of success, higher leadership roles which the individual is well qualified for are systematically unavailable.
However, with the current rise of awareness about prejudice and discrimination in the workplace, we see more women in leadership roles than ever before. But is this change motivated by positive cultural shifts? The glass cliff theory offers a more sinister explanation.
Coined by researchers at the University of Exeter, the glass cliff theory “suggests that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure.” In business, these promotions often follow a company crisis, but the glass cliff also extends to fields like law and politics, where women are given more difficult cases or must run for seats that they are unlikely to win.
Between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of American female managers increased from 17% to 40%, yet studies suggest that regardless of education and level of leadership experience, people are more likely to promote or hire women when a company is failing. In a Harvard Business Review experiment, college students were 7% more likely to choose a female candidate after a previously male-dominated organization was struggling. When told that the organization was primarily headed by females, however, there was no difference, suggesting that “as long as a company headed by men performs well, there’s no perceived need to change its pattern of male leadership.” Thus women receive fewer opportunities to succeed until forced into unjustly rectifying the mistakes of previous male leaders.
The glass cliff is often difficult to condemn because of its subtlety and chances for success. For example, female CEOs like Marissa Mayer, Meg Whitman, Mary Barra, and Irene Rosenfeld have each succeeded in resurrecting their respective companies during periods of downturn. Yet many others, like Carol Bartz, Sallie Krawcheck, and Andrea Jung have not. While some may argue that the glass cliff is at least appointing women to these powerful leadership roles, regardless of the subconsious motives behind the promotions, we must learn to recognize the ways that conditioned gender roles and stereotypes influence our workplaces, economies, and governments.
In Senior Executive Service positions held by women working for the federal government, women are less involved in policy making, feel less empowered, and regularly face prejudice. Candidate selection processes are also more likely to appoint females to run for riskier positions. Not only is this detrimental to female employees themselves, it also hosts a variety of negative implications for the ways our laws are made, changed, and promoted.
Even when women achieve powerful political positions, they are continually disempowered by sexist workplace norms, and struggle to improve the laws which would remedy the solution. The glass cliff creates a toxic cycle in which women who strive to make a difference cannot do so even after reaching executive positions, and also renders the general female population less politically represented.
The psychology behind the glass cliff effect can often be explained in terms of schemas, or mental sets or preconceived groupings, about who is an effective leader. Buttressed by stereotypes about gender characteristics involving strengths and weaknesses, management decisions perpetuate gender roles and assign women to positions that are believed to require more diplomacy or interpersonal leadership. This “think crisis-think female” approach when intersected with “think manager-think male” creates indiscrepancies for job selection based on the organization’s needs, and perhaps more importantly, who is considered to be a heuristically better candidate. Put simply, gender roles recommend women for nurturing positions that can deflect crises after they occur, while men are viewed as natural leaders capable of managing under a continuum of situations.
The glass cliff effect can be undermined and eradicated through practices like acknowledging implicit biases and changing the influence and empowerment of women in the workplace. Understanding that the glass cliff effect originates from gender roles ought to encourage self-reflection among managers and leaders, challenging them to redefine who they promote and why.
In addition, empowerment in the workplace can reduce role incongruity, or the negative evaluation of women or minority leaders when they adopt untraditional traits, or traits that are not typically associated with their gender or race. Empowered women perform better in their jobs and are more likely to be included in decision making —, two factors that decrease incidents of the glass cliff effect.
Overall, treating women equitably in the workplace, either through equal pay, and opportunities for advancement, or through congruent involvement with their male coworkers, leads to equalized promotion rates and job satisfaction.
As society works towards narrowing the gender gap in the workplace, the glass cliff effect is a subtle, yet detrimental by-product of this social movement. Promoting women is crucial in establishing occupational equity, but the circumstances and reasonings behind these promotions must be analyzed honestly.
An overlooked modern form of sexism, the glass cliff effect is difficult to substantiate because these promotions are generally seen as unquestionably positive. However, recognizing the role that gendered stereotypes play and adjusting company and organizational leadership accordingly would address problems of sexism from their roots and strengthen workplace diversity ethically.