The Glass Cliff or Why being good in a crisis can disadvantage women

Neela Bettridge is one of our most senior Executive Coaches and resident guru on Women in Business.  She has provided this month’s blog to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8th March.

When psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter observed that women were more likely to be promoted to leadership roles that carried a higher risk of failure, they dubbed the phenomenon ‘the glass cliff’ – an obvious extension of the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘glass elevator’ metaphors. 

Based on a number of archival and experimental studies, their research raises the interesting and important question as to why this should be so. Are women simply being set up to fail? Or is it more likely, as a further study suggests, that women are perceived to have qualities that make them better suited to taking the helm when the going gets tough?

Commenting on the glass cliff phenomenon in a recent article, Marianne Cooper, author, sociologist and lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, observed: “When asked to describe managers in successful companies, people tended to list more stereotypical masculine qualities (decisive, forceful). But when asked how desirable different characteristics were for managers of unsuccessful companies, the number of stereotypical female qualities (intuitive, understanding) outweighed the number of masculine ones.”

Of course, there are subtleties and nuances to the findings of Ryan and Haslam that there isn’t space to give full justice to here. However, as they themselves have commented, there is good reason “to reflect closely both on the nature of leadership roles that women undertake and on the complexities of the … stereotypes associated with leadership in the world today.”

It also seems to me there are important individual and collective considerations here. In short, individual women need to remember the glass cliff phenomenon before rushing to accept any promotion that might turn out to be a poisoned chalice. And collectively, we need to be ready to point to the glass cliff phenomenon should anyone seek to pretend that the failure of any individual woman is indicative of the general unsuitability of women for leadership positions.

If you would like to hear more please contact Neela Bettridge at:
[email protected] or call 01306 621600.

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