Glass Cliff

As today is International Women’s Day it would be satisfying to celebrate and report on more women in the boardroom, but progress is still slow. But even worse than the glass ceiling is the lesser-known term the glass cliff. With the pandemic having pushed more businesses into crisis, the number of high-risk leadership roles to turn these companies around is increasing. So, what can women do to guard against the glass cliff phenomenon?

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about the glass ceiling – the invisible barrier that is perceived to stop women from achieving the highest level in organisations, most often due to sexism or racism. The glass ceiling not only disadvantages women but also the economy – if organisations are not tapping into the talent and skills that women have then it is inevitable the economy will suffer. And yet it persists, proving that this years’ topic for International Women’s Day of Break the Bias is as, if not more, important than ever.

But if that isn’t painful enough for those women with board room ambitions there is also another phenomenon for women to navigate – the glass cliff – which is an extension of the glass ceiling metaphor. It was first used in 2004 by Exeter University professors Ryan and Haslam to describe the fact that women were more likely than men to be promoted in firms experiencing a crisis and where failure was a strong option. Ryan and Haslam looked at the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after new board members were appointed and found that boards who appointed new women members were likelier than others to have had problems in the preceding five months from poor performance. The inference is that when a business is not thriving male candidates are likely to say that they don’t want to take on a potential ‘poisoned chalice’ whereas women (and minorities) might take it as their only way to get an opportunity to be on the board.

So, are we saying that if an organisation is in trouble and the position being offered is a high-risk position with an above-average chance of failure, a woman is more likely to be appointed? Sadly yes. In fact, subsequent research by Glass and Cook identified that women were twice as likely as men to be offered these positions and there was evidence of over-representation of women board members in firms experiencing scandal, dramatic changes and turbulence. And in my 20 years of coaching senior women in these types of roles, I have spent many hours supporting women who are struggling to succeed and undergoing poor mental health, lack of confidence and low self-esteem due to this experience. It is a hugely traumatic experience for a woman to get to the top of her game, apply for a promotion to her dream role that she has worked so hard to achieve, and to then feel trapped in a position where she feels that she is unlikely to achieve her goals due to poor support or an unsupportive leadership team.

In any role we undertake we hope that we will be thoroughly onboarded, coached to understand the changes in the role and fully supported with all the resources we need to achieve our targets, but what do women who take on these roles experience? Often, they find that they lack the necessary authority to be able to activate the role and to implement their strategy. Imagine the shock when you have been through the interview, experienced the excitement of finally achieving the board role you have worked so hard to nail and then quickly realising that you will not be given the resources that you need and that you are facing excessive scrutiny due to the economic situation of the business. Not only that, but these women can also feel pretty lonely or isolated as they are typically a minority on the board and often in crisis situations people hunker down and protect themselves and their own teams.


Here are just a few examples from the news and media:

  • Following the Icelandic banking crisis, various women were appointed to repair the industry – a rational was cited that broader perspectives would stop the same mistakes from happening.

  • Marissa Mayer was appointed as the CEO of Yahoo following a loss of significant market share to Google – she followed five CEO appointments in five years

  • Meg Whitman was promoted to CEO of Hewlett Packard during a period of severe financial difficulty.

  • A short appointment was made at Reddit when Ellen Pao lasted just a couple of months as CEO , resigning early in her term.

  • Love her or hate her, Theresa May was appointed as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the UK shortly after the Brexit vote caused the pound to drop rapidly. Interestingly, before the vote happened May was never cited as the person most likely to be the successor, in fact, at the time George Osborne and Boris Johnson were the strongest candidates who seemed to disappear into the shadows at that critical time, with Johnson only rising back into the frame once the vote was in.

  • In 2020, during the Covid crisis Sophie Wilmes became the first woman Prime Minister in Belgium

Why is it happening? Some research which looked at our unconscious bias by Bruckmüller and Branscombe indicated that during stable and successful periods male leadership is favoured, particularly if there has previously been a male CEO. Importantly, it also demonstrated that unless there is a crisis there is generally no trigger for an organisation to deviate from male leaders at the helm. This means that women who are competing with men for roles during a time of stability they face a much stronger bias for a male appointment.

However, when a woman is selected the appointment is not necessarily disingenuous, (although potentially stereotyping), but is around the ideology that feminine traits such as emotional sensitivity, morale building and strong interpersonal skills, which can be favoured during a crisis, will genuinely help. This can lead to female appointments, sometimes with great achievements as in the example of Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and her successful navigation through the Covid crisis, saving many lives.

And why would women apply and take on these high-risk roles? It starts with the inequality of Senior leadership roles. Sadly, there just aren’t that many board roles around and often women have said that they were so thrilled to finally be invited to have a seat at the board table that they jumped too quickly in the position without truly understanding what they were taking on.

But it is not all bad news, for those women who do succeed in turning these companies around reward and recognition can be significant. Plus, interestingly the glass cliff phenomenon can be seen to disappear in companies which have been led by women historically, so the future could be much more positive if we start to see more women in board positions. Then potentially, women will be selected less often in high-risk situations and for more opportunities where there are enhanced odds of them being successful.

I think you need something here to introduce your suggestions below

  • Before taking on the role be bold enough to question in detail the CEO and board members about the challenges, their vision, how they live and demonstrate the values of the organisations.

  • Ask to spend some time with the board and discover how aligned they are. Often the dynamics of the board are impossible to navigate, and this is what causes people to fail. How are they perceived by the organisation – as a cohesive team that delivers or do people notice politics and in-fighting. It is easy to believe that once you are there you can help their alignment, but if there is a lot of goal conflict this could be difficult.

  • Ensure there is absolute clarity on your role and resources. But more importantly, get some clarity on your authority – it is easy to make assumptions but questions about the budget are critical. What is the decision-making process?

  • Have some in-depth discussions about how you are going to be measured and what good will look like. What are the deliverables you will be accountable for? Have they been achieved in the past and if not why not?

  • What is the organisational context around shareholders and governance – it is critical to do some background work to find out what sort of pressures will be applied to your role to deliver.

  • Look at cultural indications – really put the values and the behaviours of the board under scrutiny. Are there any engagement surveys or other documents that will help you to understand more about their previous behaviour?

And finally trust your intuition – research has shown that when a women’s intuition kicks in, it is generally right so if you are not getting a good feeling don’t be afraid to dig a bit deeper and ask more questions – your reputation depends on it.


Gillian is the Managing Director of Emerge Development Consultancy which she founded 25 years ago. She is a Master Executive Coach working with many CEOs and Managing Directors globally. She is also an international speaker and in 2020 was named by f: Entrepreneur as one of the leading UK Female Entrepreneurs in the #Ialso campaign.

Gillian founded the RISE™ Women’s Development Programme which is delivered both in the UK and the Middle East and is her absolute passion.

She is also the co-author of ‘How to Create a Coaching Culture’, ‘50 Top Tools for Coaching’, and the author of ‘Locked Down but Not Out’ which is a diary of the first 3 months of the pandemic written to raise money for the bereaved families of the NHS workers who lost their lives during COVID-19.

If you want to know more about the RISE™ Women’s Development Programme or Diversity and Inclusion solutions, please get in touch. We are delighted to have developed women around the world, including the Middle East, for over 10 years.