From Glass Ceilings to Glass Cliffs: A Guide to Jumping, Not Falling
A “glass cliff” opportunity may be just the career boost that underrepresented leadership candidates need, but it must be approached carefully.
Some statistics suggest that the glass ceiling and barriers to diverse professionals’ advancement (sometimes called bamboo or concrete ceilings) may be weakening. A 2021 report indicates that the proportion of women in senior management roles globally grew to an unprecedented 31%, while 90% of companies worldwide have at least one woman in a senior management role.
But the proportion of diverse employees in the workforce continues to dwindle as we look up the corporate ladder. Researchers from McKinsey and Lean In found that in 2022, only 26% of C-suite roles were held by women and only a tiny fraction — 5% — by women of color.
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Why are companies failing to retain and advance occupational minorities — in this case, women and people of color? While there are many causes, one unique hurdle facing aspiring diverse candidates is the glass cliff phenomenon, in which women and other minorities are preferentially selected for leadership positions in times of crisis, placing them at increased risk for failure.1 This phenomenon occurs across industries and geographies and for women and ethnic minorities alike.2 Poorly performing Fortune 500 companies were found to be more likely to appoint a female CEO than those performing well.3 Another study found that boards were more likely to recruit female directors following decreased stock performance.4
In times of crisis, leaders — no matter who they are — tend to be seen as ineffective and part of the problem. When the leader is an occupational minority, any failure or lack of improvement tends to be blamed on their personal failings rather than on the situation. In a phenomenon called the savior effect, the minority leader is then replaced by a more demographically typical leader who “saves the day.” This both perpetuates leadership stereotypes in the organization and constricts diverse candidates’ future opportunities.5
Behind the Glass Cliff
Researchers point to three common reasons why occupational minorities are more frequently offered glass cliff assignments. First, these leaders may be chosen in part because they are atypical choices, demographically unlike their predecessors. Particularly in organizations with little diversity in their ranks, these hires signal that the organization is taking definitive action to correct the situation.
The second reason similarly centers on the candidate’s identity.
1. M.K. Ryan and S.A. Haslam, “The Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” British Journal of Management 16, no. 2 (June 2005): 81-90.
2. T. Morgenroth, T.A. Kirby, M.K. Ryan, et al., “The Who, When, and Why of the Glass Cliff Phenomenon: A Meta-Analysis of Appointments to Precarious Leadership Positions,” Psychological Bulletin 146, no. 9 (September 2020): 797-829.
3. A. Cook and C. Glass, “Above the Glass Ceiling: When Are Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities Promoted to CEO?” Strategic Management Journal 35, no. 7 (July 2014): 1080-1089.
4. S.A. Haslam, M.K. Ryan, C. Kulich, et al., “Investing With Prejudice: The Relationship Between Women’s Presence on Company Boards and Objective and Subjective Measures of Company Performance,” British Journal of Management 21, no. 2 (June 2010): 484-497.
5. A.D. Galinsky, E.V. Hall, and A.J.C. Cuddy, “Gendered Races: Implications for Interracial Marriage, Leadership Selection, and Athletic Participation,” Psychological Science 24, no. 4 (April 2013): 498-506.
6. C. Kulich, L. Gartzia, M. Komarraju, et al., “Contextualizing the Think Crisis-Think Female Stereotype in Explaining the Glass Cliff: Gendered Traits, Gender, and Type of Crisis,” PLoS ONE 16, no. 3 (March 2021): 1-27.