Most of us have heard of the glass ceiling, the invisible but real barrier that stops qualified individuals from reaching certain levels of advancement due to prejudice or bias. However, there is another phenomenon that many have not heard of, the glass cliff. I was introduced to this phrase during an interview of Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Not only does she discuss IMF policies moving forward, the current trade disputes between the US and China, and the business case for gender equality, but also this concept of a glass cliff, which personally affected her. So, what is the glass cliff?
This term was put forward through the academic research of Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam. Their report disputed the claim made by the U.K. Times that companies with women on the board performed worse than those with all-male boards. Instead, they discovered companies with women on the board had already been performing poorly in the stock market when these women were placed on the board. This is a much different story. Rather than women coming in and dragging the company down, it appears that women are called in only when the company is on the verge of failure. After this research was presented studies were conducted which corroborated these findings not only with board members but also with CEOs and other leadership positions. Essentially, women can break the glass ceiling and advance but then could potentially fall off the glass cliff created by a failing company.
This is all disheartening, but why does it happen? Why are leadership positions only open to women in high-risk situations? There are several leading theories for this phenomenon which look beyond the possible, nefarious reason that women may simply be used as a potential scapegoat. The first potential reason was discussed in a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review. In addition to finding that replacing the CEO with a female is preferable only in times of crisis, the study found that stereotypically female traits (such as the ability to communicate) are preferred when a company is in crisis and stereotypically male traits (such as competitiveness) are preferred when the company is doing well. This seems to imply that traits culturally attributed to females are thought to handle crises better. Second, it may be that when companies are in crisis the board wishes to signal that the company is attempting a drastic change in order to “turn things around” and so they appoint a female CEO. Third, many female CEOs who have risked the glass cliff state that when women take a risky position as CEO at a failing company they were often not the first choice, but none of the male candidates would take the position. Essentially, men will turn down the position because they know they will get another opportunity; women are more willing to take the risky position as they may never be given another opportunity.
This all seems very discouraging on the surface. It seems that for women to advance at all they must take huge risks that may not always be rewarded. Many female CEOs that take over in crisis may be targeted by activist investors or fired as a scapegoat if things are not turned around quickly enough. However, there is a glimmer of hope which brings me back to Christine Lagarde. She has been the first woman many times over. She was the first female finance minister of the G8. After the financial crisis, she became the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That is right, the world economy tanked, and the IMF appointed a woman. That being said, her tenure is largely viewed as a success and she encourages women to take risky, glass cliff appointments. She states that women should see crises as a way to gain power and make a difference. A woman can do so by turning it around and maintaining the strength she gained, rather than just turn it over to a male colleague. It also seems that Christine Lagarde is taking her own advice once again as she has been nominated as the first female head of the European Central Bank (ECB).
While the European Union (EU) may not be in a complete crisis, with Brexit coming up, Italy in debt, and a looming trade war between the US and China, the EU is far from healthy and stable. That being said it seems an interesting coincidence that for the first time women were nominated to head the ECB and the EU Commission. This would not be the first time political leaders were also subject to the glass cliff, with the most obvious being Theresa May being left to pick up the pieces after the Brexit Referendum. So, as these women step up I will certainly be watching to see what happens. Will this be an opportunity for women to turn things around or will these women be blamed for the crisis they were handed? Unfortunately, this seems to be the risk most women must take to push past the glass ceiling; it is a balancing game at the edge of the glass cliff.
 Business Dictionary, “glass Ceiling,” Business Dictionary, 2019, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/glass-ceiling.html.
 Lydia Dishman, “What is the Glass Cliff, and Why do so many CEOs Fall of it?,” Fast Company, 27 July 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90206067/what-is-the-glass-cliff-and-why-do-so-many-female-ceos-fall-off-it.
 Susanne Bruckmuller and Nyla R. Branscombe, “How Women End up on the ‘Glass Cliff,’” Harvard Business Review, 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/01/how-women-end-up-on-the-glass-cliff.
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 Emily Stewart, “Why Struggling Companies Promote Women: The Glass Cliff Explained,” Vox, 31 October 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/10/31/17960156/what-is-the-glass-cliff-women-ceos.
 Cassie Werber, “Christine Lagarde Says Women Should Use the ‘glass Cliff’ to Their Advantage,” Quartz at Work, 4 July 2019, https://qz.com/work/1658829/christine-lagarde-says-women-should-embrace-glass-cliffs-roles/.
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