The glass cliff is a relative of the “glass ceiling” — a metaphor for the invisible, societal barrier that keeps women from achieving the highest positions in business, politics, and organizations.
The glass cliff is a concept which states that: Women are elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly. When they reach the upper ranks of power, they’re put into precarious positions and therefore have a higher likelihood of failure.
The term “glass cliff” was first coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005.
Researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass at Utah State University followed up with research examining Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period. They reported similar findings: White women and men and women of color are likelier than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms.
A 2013 PwC report found that over a 10-year period, more women leaders were forced out of office than men — 38 percent of women CEOs versus 27 percent of men CEOs. In other words, women walk into bad situations and thus become more likely to fail.
Kristin J. Anderson writes that companies may offer glass cliff positions to women because they consider women "more expendable and better scapegoats."
Haslam believes that women executives are likelier than men to accept glass cliff positions because they do not have access to the high-quality information and support that would ordinarily warn executives away.
Utah State University professors Ali Cook states that women and other minorities view risky job offers as the only chance they are likely to get.
The glass cliff also extends to racial and ethnic minorities, closely linked to another phenomenon known as the saviour effect.
A research study was done on the transitions in America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association’s men’s basketball head coaches over 30 years. It found out that minority coaches were replaced by white men when they failed to deliver at a glass cliff appointment with a losing team. However, the study also observed that minority coaches/leaders never received the support and resources that their white counterparts did. Therefore, the study posited that the saviour effect results in a loss of confidence in minority leaders, and called it a parallel process of the glass cliff.
Research has shown that the glass cliff culture thins out in companies with a history of female leadership. In a welcome move, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had in 2018 mandated for all listed companies to have at least one independent female director on their boards.