Women in leadership roles: the glass cliff phenomenon

Men and women working.

During the last few decades, social sciences scholars and feminists have tried to develop new words in order to study and explain women’s experiences in different work fields – especially when it comes to male-dominated ones, but not only.
Some of these words have become quite well-known, whereas others still aren’t part of popular knowledge.

While we are all familiar with terms such as mansplaining, patronizing, and wage gaps, most of you might not know the meaning behind the expressions glass ceiling, glass elevator, and glass cliff.
They are all used to explain the invisible hurdles – therefore the use of the word glass – that women face in order to climb their way up the corporate ladder and be appointed to positions at the upper management level.
While both glass ceiling and glass cliff tend to be used when describing women’s careers in male-dominated fields, the expression glass elevator (or glass escalator) is meant to be used in relation to the so-called pink collar professions.

First: what are pink collar professions?
As condescending as it sounds, all female-dominated professions – such as elementary school teaching and care-giving jobs – fall under this not so blatantly sexist umbrella term.

And second: why was the expression glass elevator coined?
This expression was firstly used by the author and sociologist Christine L. Williams in her article “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions” (you can read its abstract here), in 1992.
More precisely, the glass escalator allows men to earn higher wages and to advance in their career faster than their female counterparts.
It is therefore safe to say, that women crash against the glass ceiling even when they work in female-dominated fields!

On the other hand, the expression glass ceiling – coined by writer Gay Bryant in 1984 – refers to the informal and invisible barrier that keeps women out of positions at an upper management level. Even though this expression was primarily used in the corporate word, it can be easily applied to politics and sports as well.
A 2019 study has shown that white men still make up 68% of the C-suite, even though they account for no more than a third of the entry-level employees.

A further phenomenon that keeps women away from leadership roles is the so-called glass cliff – yet another hurdle for women to overcome on their way up.
It was uncovered by Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam – two professors from the University of Exeter, in the UK – in 2004. In their paper “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions” (here‘s the abstract), an archival study, they drew attention to the circumstances that usually lead to the appointment of a female board member.

Ryan and Haslam’s research focused on the performance of the 100 companies with the highest market capitalization in the London Stock Exchange (aka, FTSE 100) both before and after the appointment of a female board member.
Doing so, they managed to display a worrying tendency: women were usually appointed if the company had already experienced a consistent bad performance over a five-month period. To sum up, women are often chosen to deal with recessions and other kind of crisis.

In order to answer the question of “How women end up on the glass cliff”, professors Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe have conducted an experiment for the Harvard Business Review.
Their experiment helped to uncover some widespread biases. For example, a male CEO is usually replaced with another man if the company has done well for itself; on the other hand, if the company’s performance has been poor, a female CEO would have more chances.

Why does this happen, according to Bruchmüller’s experiment?
In times of crisis, abilities such as being able to encourage and motivate others, communication skills, and relationship building may seem more valuable than decisiveness and audacity. And all those traits are considered typically feminine.
Even though the perception of these skills surely plays a role in the glass cliff phenomenon, it is not the only reason behind its popularity.

Both women and other underrepresented categories, namely ethnic minorities and disabled people, are considered more expandable in the job market. Therefore, they make the perfect scapegoat in times of uncertainty.
For instance, if a legal company gives a high-risk case to a female associate, and she doesn’t win the case, the blame can be entirely put on her incompetence. And the company is still in the clear.
On the other hand, in case of a legal success, the company makes a good impression on the market, and it can look progressive at the same time.
The same applies for political parties and hard to get seats, which are usually assigned to female candidates.

But why do women still accept such positions?
They have to do so. Women cannot be choosy about such opportunities, because they don’t get as many as their male colleagues.
Moreover, the term glass cliff isn’t random: those women who accept risky and precarious positions, most of the time, aren’t even aware of that danger. And that’s also on gender inequality: women in middle management are usually exposed to less information as opposed to men who cover that exact same position.

And finally, what consequences does this phenomenon have on women’s future careers?
Most of the time, women are pushed off the glass cliff as soon as they step on it. They are given less time, less help, and less information in order to deal with the crisis they are facing: they are basically set up for failure.
In the likely case of a fiasco, the company (or political party as well) has a good reason to replace the female in charge with yet another white man: this is the so-called savior effect.
And lastly, this dynamic tends to reinforce the perceived inability of women in leadership roles.

If you want to learn more about some other obstacles that women still have to face in 2022, you could also read the following article: Schools in Afghanistan remain closed for female students.

Polyglot, stand-up enthusiast, Law student. 23, from Italy.

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