glass cliff n. A senior job or important project, particularly one given to a woman, with a high risk of failure (cf. glass ceiling).
The glass cliff is a program of research investigating the context in which women (and other minorities) are appointed into leadership positions. This research suggests that women tend to be appointed to leadership positions under very different circumstances than men. More specifically, this research suggests that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with an increased risk of criticism and failure. Women's leadership positions can thus be seen as more precarious than those of men. Extending the metaphor of the 'glass ceiling' and the 'glass elevator', we have dubbed this phenomenon 'the glass cliff'. The following sections summarise archival and experimental investigations into the glass cliff phenomenon to date.
In November 2003 The Times published an article entitles 'Women on Board: Help or Hindrence' (Judge, 2003). The article reported a tendency for companies with women on their boards to perform less well than those that have all-male boards. The article concluded that women leaders were 'wreaking havoc' on the performance of FTSE 100 companies. Judge's conclusions were based on simple correlational analysis of the performance of FTSE 100 companies with and without women on their boards in the UK throughout 2003. However, to make the case for a glass cliff-based reinterpretation of this data, Ryan and Haslam (2005) conducted a more detailed analysis of the performance of these same companies, both before and after the appointment of a male or female board member .
Putting paid to the argument that women directors are bad for business, the analyses revealed that the appointment of a woman director was not associated with a subsequent drop in company performance. Indeed, in a time of a general financial downturn, companies that appointed a woman actually experienced a marked increase in share price after the appointment. On the other hand, those appointments that were made in less unsettled times tended to be followed by a period of share price stability.
Yet this study did more than simply refute claims that women were unable to cut it in the corporate world. More noteworthy, there were fluctuations in company performance leading up to the appointment of women to boards of directors. As can be seen in the graph below, in a time of a general downturn in the stock market, companies that appointed a woman to their board had experienced consistently poor performance in the months preceding the appointment. Thus women were more likely than men to be placed in positions already associated with poor company performance . In this way, female directors were more likely than male directors to find themselves on a glass cliff, such that their positions of leadership were more risky and precarious than those in which men found themselves.
Importantly, these glass cliff positions do not seem to be restricted to large businesses and corporations. Ryan and Haslam (in prep) also identified the existence of glass cliff positions in the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary Elections. Here there was evidence that, in more conservative parties, women were required to run in more difficult seats than were men. More specifically, analysis demonstrated that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party stood significantly less women candidates than men in the election, with only 18% of candidates being female. Moreover, those women who were put forward as candidates were pre-selected in seats that were less winnable in the sense that they were held by an opposition candidate with a significantly larger margin (34%) than were the seats in which men ran (28%).
One potential objection to the above studies is that they are archival and hence could arise from any number of processes over which the researchers have no control. Certainly, evidence that such effects could be reproduced in experimental contexts where key variables (e.g., leader competence, confidence, experience) are held constant and others (in particular, gender) are manipulated would lend stronger support to the causal reanalysis for which we have argued. For this reason, we recently embarked on a series of experimental laboratory studies designed to replicate and extend these archival studies (Ashby, Ryan, & Haslam, 2004; Ryan & Haslam, in prep).
In a first study (Ryan & Haslam, in prep, Study 1) participants (graduate business students) were asked to indicate who they thought should fill a vacant executive board position in a company that was described as having either increasingly good or increasingly bad performance. Participants were given descriptions of three candidates for the position, a male and a female candidate who were equally well-qualified, and a third male candidate who was clearly not suitable for the job. Consistent with findings from archival studies, participants saw the female candidate as being significantly more appointable when the company's performance was said to be decreasing, than when it was increasing.
These findings were also replicated in a study conducted with high-school students (Ryan & Haslam, in prep, Study 2). Here, adolescent participants were more likely to choose a female candidate to be a youth representative for a local music festival when they were led to believe that the festival's popularity was declining over time than when it was thought to be improving. In addition, Ashby et al. (2004) also reproduced a pattern of glass cliff appointments in a legal context. In this study law students were more likely to select a female lawyer to take a lead role in a case when that case was described as being associated with negative publicity and criticism than when it was described as easy and trouble-free.
These empirical studies suggest that the glass cliff is a robust phenomenon that is not isolated to a particular context or participant group. Importantly too, the fact that the studies allow us to hold constant key factors that might otherwise contribute to gender inequalities in the workplace (e.g. ability and past experience), increases our confidence that gender has a causal role to play in the appointment of women to class cliff positions.
Research into the glass cliff continues. We are currently investigating (a) the psychological process involved in the appointment of women to glass cliff positions, (b) explantions that particular groups favour for the glass cliff phenomenom, and (c) the extension of the analysis to include other minority groups (such as those based on race, age, and disability).
Ashby, J., Ryan, M. K., & Haslam , S.A. (in prep). The glass cliff: Are women lawyers given more risky or precarious leadership positions? Manuscript in preparation: University of Exeter. (abstract)
Judge, E. (2003, November 11). Women on board: Help or hindrance? The Times, p. 21.
Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90 . (abstract)
Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (in prep). The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organisations. Manuscript submitted for review: University of Exeter. (abstract)
Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (in prep). Women in the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections: Further evidence for the glass cliff. Manuscript in preparation: University of Exeter.