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date: 19 November 2019

The Glass Cliff

Summary and Keywords

A wealth of research has previously shown that gender stereotypes and discrimination keep women from climbing the corporate ladder. However, women who do break through the “glass ceiling” are likely to face new barriers. Research on the glass cliff phenomenon shows that, when women reach positions of power, they tend to do so in circumstances of crisis and instability. A number of archival, experimental, and qualitative studies have demonstrated that women are more likely to rise in the professional hierarchy in difficult, and for these women, potentially harmful, situations. For example, compared to their male peers, women are seen as more desirable for managerial or political leadership positions in times of instability and crises, or following scandals. Such appointments expose women to a higher risk of failure, criticism, and psychological distress, thus a danger of falling off an “invisible” cliff.

Keywords: glass cliff, leadership, gender, think crisis-think female, implicit stereotypes, glass ceiling

When Do Women Become Leaders?

There are many pathways to positions of responsibility, power, and leadership; thus, becoming a leader generally involves highly individualized experiences and routes to success. However, some aspects of these career trajectories have been associated with gender and other social markers such as ethnicity and class. What is so different in the way that women’s leadership careers develop compared to men’s?

In 1977, R. M. Kanter’s book, Men and Women of the Corporation, elicited an intense interest by researchers in the barriers women encounter in their professional careers. These include structural barriers such as occupational gender-segregation, where women accumulate in low paying, low-status “feminine” work domains (e.g., healthcare, retail), and white men in high-paying high-status sectors (e.g., finance and science; Blau, Simpson, & Anderson, 1998; Charles & Grusky, 2004; Maume, 1999).

There are also social psychological dynamics, such as gender stereotypes, that describe women as less apt than men to be leaders (e.g., Eagly & Karau, 2002) and mothers as less apt than fathers to be promoted (e.g., Budig & Hodges, 2010; Hodges & Budig, 2010; Lyness & Erkovan, 2016). Such bias impacts evaluations of women’s ability and performance, and this in turn translates into fewer promotion opportunities, less power, and lower remuneration (e.g., Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt, 2009; Kulich, Anisman-Razin, & Saguy, 2015; Kulich, Trojanowski, Ryan, Haslam, & Renneboog, 2011). Stereotypes are also implicated in a lack of support and networking opportunities for women, and their exclusion from naturally formed mentoring relationships (Clutterbuck & Ragins, 2002; Ragins & Cotton, 1991).

The impact of both structural barriers and stereotypes comes together to form a relatively subtle and, thus, “invisible” impact on women’s career outcomes and leads to very different work experiences for women and men in managerial spheres. This subtle differentiation is captured by the metaphor of the “glass ceiling” (Hymowitz & Schellhardt, 1986), which alludes to gender stereotypes and discrimination as an “invisible” (i.e., glass) barrier (i.e., ceiling) that stops women’s careers at mid-management level. The glass ceiling is still observable (Barreto et al., 2009); the highest executive offices still show very low female representation, with for example, only 2.8% female chief executive officers (CEO) in the European Union and 4.8% in the United States. Overall, 42.7% of managers are female in the United States, and 33% in the European Union (European Commission, 2011, 2014; International Labour Organization, 2015).

Greater numbers of women in positions of responsibility may be interpreted as an improvement of equal gender representation, but does more necessarily mean equal? As we will see, an analysis of the quantity of women occupying leadership appointments should be accompanied by an analysis of the quality of these appointments before making conclusions about equality. In line with this, recent attention has been targeted towards when women become leaders, and on analysis of the quality of such leadership positions. In the framework of the glass cliff phenomenon, research demonstrates that women, and individuals from other minority groups, are more likely to rise in the professional hierarchy in difficult, risky, and precarious situations (Ryan & Haslam, 2005; see Bruckmüller, Ryan, Rink, & Haslam, 2014; Ryan, Haslam, Morgenroth, Rink, Stoker, & Peters, 2016 for a recent review). For example, women are seen as more desirable for managerial or political leadership positions in times of instability and crisis compared to their male peers (Haslam & Ryan, 2008). Such appointments expose the individual to a high risk of failure, criticism, and psychological distress (Ryan & Haslam, 2007).

This article outlines research that explores the multi-faceted nature of the glass cliff phenomenon. First, we present research on the specific types of situations that lead to the glass cliff. Then, we discuss the complex interplay of these crisis characteristics and factors that more likely accompany women’s appointments (e.g., a lack of social support). This nuanced analysis allows us to better understand the nature of the precariousness and the riskiness of such glass cliff situations. In parallel, we will illustrate with real-life examples potential glass cliff cases, and indicate a number of open questions and potential explanations of the glass cliff that are still awaiting empirical investigation. This understanding may be used to develop guidelines on how to intervene and prevent contexts that threaten to become glass cliff situations for minority groups.

Evidence of the Glass Cliff

Research on the glass cliff was initiated by Ryan and Haslam (2005) as a response to media coverage in the United Kingdom newspaper The Times, which reported the relationship between women in board of director positions and their company’s performance. In 2003, a journalist looked at the performance of the ten UK FTSE (Financial Times Stock Exchange) 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange with the most women on their boards of directors and the performance of the five companies with the least number of female directors. The journalist observed that the majority of companies with the most women on board were underperforming, in terms of average annual share price, whereas those with the least number of women on board were all over-performing (Judge, 2003). The journalist’s conclusion was that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on the board” (p. 21).

Ryan and Haslam (2005) questioned this causal interpretation and, exploring an alternative explanation, examined the full FTSE 100 and their male and female director appointments over the course of one year. This analysis allowed them to examine the causal relationship between company performance and director appointments. Their findings demonstrated that female directors were likely to be appointed following a period of unstable or consistently negative stock-performance. In contrast, male director appointments were surrounded by periods of relatively stable performance. Such a finding suggests that companies’ performances did not suffer at the hands of female leadership but rather that women were appointed at times when companies experienced fluctuating or troubled times.

Building on previous “glass” metaphors, Ryan and Haslam (2005) coined the phrase the “glass cliff” to describe the precarious nature of women’s leadership appointments as they are preferentially selected in times of crisis or instability. Moreover, the term alludes to the risk of falling off a “cliff” due to the blame, the stress, and the likelihood of failure that may be associated with such appointments. The illustration of the glass cliff in Ryan and Haslam’s archival study of FTSE 100 companies was only the start of a series of archival and experimental studies that confirmed the existence of this phenomenon.

Further Archival Evidence

The demonstration of the glass cliff phenomenon in archival data was supported by a number of studies. In the United States, Cook and Glass (2014a) analyzed all CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies between 1996 and 2010 and found that appointments of female CEOs were more likely to occur following lower company performance than appointments of white male CEOs. An analysis of Fortune 500 companies between 2001 and 2005 added to this, such that female executives also faced higher appointment probabilities following a scandal of any type (Brady, Isaacs, Reeves, Burroway, & Reynolds, 2011). Finally, a vast analysis of career trajectories compared career opportunities and challenges of all female CEOs who had ever served in Fortune 500 companies to those of a matched sample of male CEOs (Glass & Cook, 2016). News articles covering the situation of the company at the time of the appointment were used to determine the precariousness of an appointment. Results underlined that female CEOs were promoted to high-risk leadership positions, which in situations that were defined as scandals, declining sales, low growth, strategic missteps, or awareness of major problems.

Apart from research in the United Kingdom and United States context, Morgenroth and Wegge (2015) found a relationship between stock performance and the appointments of female directors in the following year in companies at the German Stock Exchange (DAX) and in smaller companies, but only in certain years. And Jungbauer, Ihmels, Shemla, and Wegge (2016) showed a glass cliff for German Stock Exchange companies between 2003 and 2011. Partial support of the glass cliff also comes from an investigation of UK stock-exchange companies that reported a loss between 2004 and 2006. Mulcahy and Linehan (2014) showed that the glass cliff occurred only in a subsample of companies that experienced big losses compared to samples that experienced small loss and a control sample.

Glass cliffs are not restricted to business contexts and may occur not only as a response to faulty company performance, but also in other precarious contexts such as positions where the risk of failure is high for the leader (Ryan & Haslam, 2009). In the public sector, the analysis of responses (Smith, 2015) from the National Education Panel Survey in the United States revealed that women were more likely to occupy leadership positions in local school districts when the risk of failure was high, that is, when the student body had relatively low talent and English proficiency, and levels of out-of-school suspensions were high. Moreover, Smith and Monaghan (2013) showed that more women held leadership in United States Federal regulatory organizations when their visibility was low or moderate and the risk of failure high.

In political spheres, several studies have shown that women and men do not govern under comparable conditions. An analysis of nearly all female prime ministers and presidents in office between 1960 and 2007 revealed that they entered these offices predominantly in politically unstable times (e.g., during political transitions, as interim leaders following the sudden removal, resignation, or death of an executive) and in political systems where these offices were linked to limited power due to dual executive systems (Jalalzai, 2008). One example is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who took office in economically ailing Liberia in 2006 and since has achieved substantial national debt reliefs and prevented new debt. Similarly, Isabel Matrínez de Peròn in Argentina (1974–1976), Michelle Bachelet in Chile (2006–2010), and Corazòn Aquino in the Philippines (1986–1992) were elected first female presidents in politically changing and unstable times. In parallel, the election of female prime ministers in African, Asian, and Latin American countries coincided almost exclusively with periods of instability. A weakness of this analysis is its lack of a systematic comparison to matched male leaders. In this way, it points towards a higher probability for women to seek power in precarious rather than to stable contexts, but it cannot ascertain whether a similar pattern may be also found for male politicians.

Although, Jalalzai’s (2008) analysis of female head-of-state appointments did not point to a glass cliff in European and North American countries, other research on political elections in these regions revealed that women were more likely to run for political office in difficult contexts. An analysis of UK general election results between 2001 and 2010 revealed that female candidates of the Conservative Party were likely to run for office in hard-to-win situations (Kulich et al., 2014; Ryan, Haslam, & Kulich, 2010). This means women were nominated as candidates in electorates where they were unlikely to secure the seat, as the opposition party held these seats by a greater margin than those in which their male counterparts were nominated (see also Gertzog & Simard, 1981; Murray, Krook, & Opello, 2012). A similar trend was also found for female candidates in the 2004 to 2011 federal elections in Canada by Thomas and Bodet (2013), who called this phenomenon “sacrificial lamb” (see also Erickson, 1991, 1993), and for the legislative elections in France in 2007 (Kulich, Iacoviello, Assilaméhou, & Aeleni, 2017).

Gender differences in leadership processes, such as the glass cliff, tend to focus predominately on women, but research on other minority groups is on the rise. In a U.S context, Cook and Glass (2014a) showed that black men and women (as well as white women) were more likely to be promoted to problematic CEO positions compared to white men. In U.K. politics, Kulich et al. (2014) showed that in the Conservative Party, losses by ethnic minority candidates in general elections could be explained by the fact that they ran for harder-to-win seats than white candidates. Similarly, in France, observations were made on the quality of seats that candidates with immigrant origins (defined by Turkish or African first names) run for compared to all other candidates (Ifop, 2011). For example, in the 2007 French legislative elections, the left-wing Socialist Party’s candidates of immigrant origins were more likely to run in regions where the party had received lower percentages of votes in the past, potentially explaining the higher losses of immigrant candidates compared to other candidates. Moreover, the 2011 French cantonal elections showed a similar phenomenon for the right-wing UMP party (but not for the Socialist Party), which nominated candidates with immigrant first names in cantons where their party had gained lower percentages of votes compared to other candidates. Finally, Cook and Glass (2013) demonstrated that black basketball coaches were more likely to become coaches of men’s U.S. college teams when the team had encountered repeated losses in the previous year.

Together these studies demonstrate that the phenomenon of the glass cliff not only affects women but also applies to ethnic minority groups and potentially to other marginalized groups in society (Ryan & Haslam, 2007). Moreover, glass cliffs are not limited to a context of appointments following poor performance but they may occur more generally in precarious or high-risk leadership situations. An analysis of minority appointments thus needs to consider a multitude of contextual factors in order to identity if the situation is precarious and thus a potential glass cliff situation or not.

Anecdotal Examples

Pinpointing individual cases as examples of glass cliff positions is difficult because detailed information surrounding a director appointment is not usually readily available. The phenomenon of the glass cliff for female leaders has been derived, for the most part, from aggregate analyses which include multiple female appointments and their systematic deviation from comparable males’ appointments as illustrated in the archival studies above (see for a discussion Ryan et al., 2016). Moreover, in such analyses the focus lies on one specific narrowly defined type of glass cliff context, this is, organizational performance.

It is still useful to examine a number of anecdotal cases that can be potentially referred to as glass cliff instances. For example, Glass and Cook (2016), in their extensive analysis of all female CEO trajectories in U.S. Fortune 500 companies, named Mary Barra, among many others, as a demonstration of the glass cliff. Her appointment as CEO at General Motors in 2014, the first woman to lead a major automotive company, was immediately followed by a scandal involving a massive recall of products. According to Glass and Cook, this recall was already anticipated by decision makers in the company before Barra’s election, making the role almost certainly risky and precarious, and thus Barra’s appointment can be seen as an example of the glass cliff. Other frequently mentioned examples in the domain of information technology are the appointments of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo (Olen, 2012), and Carly Fiorina, as CEO of Hewlett Packard (Hewlett, 2008).

In politics, an early example is Margaret Thatcher, the first female U.K. prime minister, whose career was shaken by crisis moments (Ryan & Haslam, 2004). In 2016, Theresa May became the second female U.K. prime minister. Her appointment followed a U.K. referendum to leave the European Union and the consequent stepping down of her predecessor (McGregor, 2016). In Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was elected as the first female Prime Minister in 2009 following Iceland’s worst financial crisis (Sunderland, 2009; see also Julia Gillard in Australia). In the domain of culture and arts, Karin Bergmann became the first female director of the prestigious Burgtheater, in Austria in 2014, following the dismissal of the previous director because of a finance scandal (Kulich, Iacoviello, & Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2015).

Experimental Evidence

Rigorous research should always be based on a triangulation of research methods to counteract the potential weaknesses of each methodology. Archival studies have high ecological validity as they investigate real-world settings. However, such observations are accompanied by a number of uncontrolled variables, and the studies run the risk of spurious correlations or an absence of correlation due to large fluctuations in a number of other factors. Controlling or excluding such variations is difficult in a natural setting. Moreover, correlational data always leaves open certain questions about causality. To address these shortcomings, experimental studies can be an additional source of knowledge that allows researchers to (a) test a phenomenon in controlled settings, (b) clarify causal inferences, and (c) investigate the psychological underpinnings of the glass cliff.

Haslam and Ryan (2008) conducted the first series of experiments examining the glass cliff, and their methodology was used in follow-up studies by other researchers (e.g., Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010; Kulich, Lorenzi-Cioldi, Iacoviello, Faniko, & Ryan, 2015). Typically, participants read a text, created by the experimenters, that either describes an organization or a context that infers a crisis, or a stable or flourishing context. Participants are then asked to select a leader from two equally qualified candidates who differ only as a function of gender (often an additional male candidate, who is less qualified, is included to make the experiment more realistic). Using such an experimental design, Haslam and Ryan (2008) revealed that high-school adolescents, graduate management students, and business leaders made similar choices: They chose female leaders more often in contexts of crisis than in flourishing times, and female leaders were more often chosen in crises contexts compared to male leaders. Such patterns have been replicated by other researchers, including psychology students in the United States (Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010) and students in Switzerland (Kulich et al., 2015). Moreover, the phenomenon has been illustrated not only in business contexts, but also in a legal context, where law students were more likely to choose a female lawyer to work on a difficult and risky legal case, compared to an easy case, and compared to a male lawyer (Ashby, Ryan, & Haslam, 2007). In addition, experimental studies in a political context conducted in the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland demonstrated that a non-white man, or a woman, was more likely to be chosen as political candidate in regions that were difficult to win, giving the opposition party a greater advantage in the past election, compared to a white male candidate and easy-to-win contexts (Kulich, Iacoviello, & Assilaméhou-Kunz, 2016; Ryan et al., 2010).

Such consistent findings from empirical studies across a range of contexts and with diverse populations give confidence that the glass cliff phenomenon is robust and extends beyond women in the boardroom of top companies (Ryan & Haslam, 2009). Further, such studies highlight that the phenomenon is not bound to any one group of decision makers, and the fact that glass cliff decisions are made by people of different professions and age groups suggests that there may be a shared underlying mechanism. In the next section, we will examine the boundary conditions of the glass cliff and explore a range of underlying causes for the preference for atypical leaders in particular crisis contexts.

Causes of the Glass Cliff

As we have illustrated, a series of findings exemplify the diverse contexts in which the glass cliff phenomenon can be observed and the different forms glass cliffs can take; however, such observations are bound to particular conditions. This section focuses on research that describes in more detail the factors that may facilitate or create glass cliff appointments in an effort to better understand this phenomenon. In particular, we focus on the types of precarious contexts and crises that lead to the appointment of female or male leaders and explore the role of gender stereotypes in understanding perceptions of suitability in relation to female and male leaders in these contexts.

Research from the leadership literature shows that what are seen as desirable qualities for leaders varies across contexts. A meta-analysis has shown that women are more likely than men to be perceived as effective in feminine and female-dominated organizations compared to masculine and male-dominated organizations, and at mid-level compared to high-level management positions (Paustian-Underdahl, Walker, & Woehr, 2014). Of particular relevance here, research also demonstrates that crisis contexts demand a different type of leadership compared to normal contexts, as they imply a breakdown of old relationships, and traditional values and beliefs and thus require a transformation of leadership (Pearson & Clair, 1998). However, research also suggests that what is seen as a desirable leadership style may vary across different types of crisis contexts and the phase of the crisis (Hannah, Uhl-Bien, Avolio, & Cavarretta, 2009). A masculine transactional type of leadership—that is, strong, confident, and deliberate leaders—may be deemed effective in extreme types of crises that are threatening to life and safety (e.g., Dynes, 1983; Gal & Jones, 1996; Perrow, 1984) and in acute turnover phases (Slatter, Lovett, & Barlow, 2011). In contrast, more empathic and considerate styles may be necessary following crises (Moxley & Pulley, 2004; Slatter et al., 2011). This variability in leadership expectations raises the question of what types of crises lead to the appointment of women and members of other minority groups. Crisis can be defined in many different ways, including decreasing financial performance of a single company, various types of scandals, or broader phenomena such as a global financial crisis (Pearson & Mitroff, 1993). The following section investigates different definitions of crisis and explores the underlying psychological mechanisms that can be derived from examining the factors that facilitate or prevent glass cliffs.

Types of Company Performance

The first archival studies on the glass cliff focused on share-price performance as the main measure of financial crisis (e.g., Ryan & Haslam, 2005). But, within the finance literature, company performance is typically inferred from two types of measures: Market-based performance measures (such as share prices, but also Tobin’s Q or earnings per share) depend on stakeholder evaluations of the company that reflect the company’s current situation but also projections to the future (Devers, Cannella, Reilly, & Yoder, 2007). In this way, such measures of performance contain a subjective or psychological dimension, as they rely on stakeholder perceptions and judgments. In contrast, accounting-based performance measures (such as return on assets or return on equity) are more objective aspects of a company’s performance, such as its productivity, benefits, or measures of how effectively a company manages its capital.

As outlined above, in the original studies, the glass cliff was found using more subjective market-based measures, in particular share-price fluctuations. However, subsequent examinations of the relationship between female members of the boards of directors and more objective, accounting-based performance do not reveal the positive relationship observed for market-based performance (see the analysis of Fortune 500 companies by Adams, Gupta, & Leeth, 2009; of FTSE companies by Haslam, Ryan, Kulich, Trojanowski, & Atkins, 2010; Cook & Glass, 2014b; or of German companies by Morgenroth & Wegge, 2015). Further evidence for the context dependence of the glass cliff comes from Dutch (Amsterdam Stock-exchange companies: Santen & Donker, 2009), Canadian (Hennessey, MacDonald, & Carroll, 2013), and German director appointments (executive directors in DAX companies from 1998 to 2013: Bechtoldt & Voigt, 2016; for a more in-depth discussion see Ryan et al., 2016). These mixed results do not necessarily question the existence of the glass cliff phenomenon but rather demonstrate that the way in which performance is measured is important (Ryan & Haslam, 2009; Ryan et al., 2016).

Change Potential

Why are women preferred in crisis contexts? Crisis management is almost inevitably linked to changes in management (e.g., Fink, Beak, & Taddeo, 1971; Pearson & Clair, 1998), which may imply the necessity of a move away from traditional ways of leading. In this way, choosing a woman as new leader could function as a visible break from previous leadership, if that leadership has been predominately male. Indeed, in times of crisis, companies may be particularly motivated by the image they project to the outside world (Saxon, 1998), as evidence suggests that organizations in crisis are more visible and their progress followed more intensely (e.g., Boin, ’T Hart, McConnell, & Preston, 2010; Carmeli & Schaubroeck, 2008; Pearson & Clair, 1998). Moreover, uncertainty and previous loss lead to higher propensity for risk-taking by decision makers (Tversky & Kahneman, 1992), and such risk-taking may facilitate the move from typical leadership to unconventional leadership. In line with this, situations of experimentally induced threat have been shown to create a desire for change (Brown, Diekman, & Schneider, 2011) and indeed, have lowered the perceived suitability of men for leadership positions.

The findings outlined in the previous section indirectly suggest that decision makers expect investors to be sensitive to director appointments in their evaluations of the company. Why should they appoint a female leader following bad market performance if not in the expectation of more positive market reactions? Haslam and Ryan (2008) hypothesized that the choice of women in times of crisis may be purely strategic, to signal to the outside world (i.e., competitors, stakeholders, clients, the media) that the company is well aware of its problems and is actively seeking a solution. Previous research into Japanese companies showed that outsiders, in this case foreign nationals, are indeed more likely to be chosen as leaders in crisis times (Kaplan & Minton, 1994).

The idea that a motivation for change may produce glass cliff appointments was tested directly by Bruckmüller and Branscombe (2010). They presented their participants with a classic glass cliff scenario, that is, a company that was performing well or badly, but in addition, they informed them that previous management had either been male or female dominated. Supporting the change hypothesis, glass cliff appointments occurred only where there was a history of male management. Where there was history of female management no differences in the preference of male or female candidates occurred. In addition, in pilot testing of glass cliff scenarios, Kulich, Lorenzi-Cioldi, and colleagues (2015) examined participants’ implicit thoughts about the gender of the previous leader: almost all participants assumed that past management must have been male. In a second step, Kulich, Lorenzi-Cioldi, and colleagues (2015, Study 1) tested the change hypothesis by varying the controllability of (strong vs. poor) company performance across experimental conditions. The study demonstrated that, when performance was controllable by the company through their management, the preferred strategy of participants was to change management (replacing a male manager with a female manager). In contrast, when the crisis situation of a company was uncontrollable by the company (e.g., broader financial crisis), such a strategy was not evident.

Overall, these studies highlight that glass cliffs are bound to specific crisis contexts, such that women may only become leaders in a crisis that was perceived or assumed to be “homemade” by faulty male leadership. However, when external factors that cannot be controlled by the companies’ management were perceived or assumed to be responsible there was a tendency towards the choice of traditional male leaders. Such findings not only clarify the boundary conditions of the glass cliff phenomenon, they also provide some initial evidence for the idea that the motivation for change may drive these leadership choices as women were sought to replace male leadership.

Signaling Change

Given that women may be appointed as a way of changing management structures, the question remains as to whether they are appointed to actually change things, or whether are they used as a “window dressing” strategy to signal change to investors, clients, and other observers of the company (Haslam & Ryan, 2008; Helland & Sykuta, 2004). Testing this idea in an experimental setting, Kulich, Lorenzi-Cioldi, and colleagues (2015, Study 2) explored these two motivations directly. They asked participants to choose a leadership candidate and to indicate their agreement with arguments linked to the symbolic value of candidate choices in terms of signaling a visible change to the outside world, as well as arguments that underlined the leadership qualities of the chosen candidate. Results revealed that participants predominantly chose a female candidate in a poorly performing company (as compared to a strongly performing one) because she projected the image that the company was focused on change, and not because she was considered the best qualified. Thus, it seems that women may be placed in glass cliff positions for their value to signal change rather than their ability to lead the company out of the crisis.

The fact that women in leadership roles may be labeled as leaders but may not be perceived as agents of company performance has also been demonstrated in experimental and archival studies on performance-based bonus (Kulich, Ryan, & Haslam, 2007; Kulich et al., 2011). Here, while the bonuses of male executive directors strongly rose and fell in relation to the companies’ performances, the size of bonuses for female executives were not related to company performance, suggesting that while men are perceived as agents of company outcomes and thus held responsible for good and bad outcomes, the same cannot be said of women. Overall, then, it seems that women’s and men’s leadership roles are not paired with the same competency expectations and attributions, thus leading to recognition of men’s leadership agency while women primarily serve as projections of the company’s image.

Gender Stereotypes and the Crisis Leadership Mission

The previous section suggested that signaling change may play a role in glass cliff appointments. But is it only about signaling change? An understanding of the stereotypes associated with women and men, and with leaders in positive times and in times of crisis can help uncover why female leaders are preferred in times of crisis.

Typically, the image of a good leader is that of a male leader (see “think manager-think male” association, Schein, 1973, 2001; see also Eagly & Karau, 1991). However, the leadership literature has demonstrated that the definition of good leadership is highly contextual, and different types of leadership may fit with different contexts (Probert & James, 2011). In this way, conflictual situations are more strongly linked to a need for leadership abilities that involve communication skills and people management, which are typically aligned with a transformational or person-oriented type of leadership (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992). This is opposed to a transactional or task-oriented leadership style that involves more autocratic, dominant, and aggressive ways of leading.

Each of these leadership styles is considered effective (Judge & Piccolo, 2004), but gender stereotypes associate men more strongly with transactional styles and women with transformational styles (Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Guimond, Chatard, & Lorenzi-Cioldi, 2013; Sczesny, 2003). This latter leadership style has led to more positive evaluations of women as leaders (Paustian-Underdahl et al., 2014) and the idea of a “female advantage” (e.g., Eagly & Carli, 2003; Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011; Sargent, 1983). Indeed, as field research shows, female leaders self-report employing a more democratic, participative, and consensus-seeking form of decision making than do men (Mano-Negrin & Sheaffer, 2004). Moreover, perceptions of female leaders’ ways of leading are more strongly associated with change and male leaders’ styles with stability (Brown et al., 2011, Study 1).

Taken together, such findings support the notion that women may be perceived as more likely to have a leadership style that better fits with crisis situations. This “think crisis-think female” association was tested by Ryan et al. (2011, Study 2) by asking participants about the characteristics of an ideal manager of a company that was performing well versus badly. Their results demonstrated that both stereotypically feminine communal traits and stereotypically masculine agentic traits were highly desirable for the manager of a successful company, but that communal traits were more important than agentic traits in a company that was struggling. Similarly, a study by Bruckmüller and Branscombe (2010, Study 2) presented participants with a glass cliff scenario and asked them to rate the candidates on agentic and communal traits. Results revealed that the male (compared to a female) candidate was less likely to be chosen in the crisis contexts because he was perceived to lack communality. Communality is central to the female stereotype, and it thus appears that women may be seen as more suitable as leaders in crisis times due to this crisis-communality association.

However, this study did not investigate the instrumentality of such communal traits in a crisis. In what way do such traits help in times of crisis? A follow-up study (Ryan et al., 2011, Study 3) presented participants with different types of missions for a leader in a crisis context and asked them to rate the desirability of communal and agentic traits for these missions. The presented missions were either relatively passive or linked to internal management processes within the company (waiting through the crisis, taking responsibility for the crisis, managing personnel issues), or more proactive (improving company performance, acting as a spokesperson). Findings demonstrated that stereotypically feminine traits were only seen as an advantage when the missions were relatively passive or focused on personnel issues. When the mission concerned actual performance improvement measures and active representation of the company to the outside world then both masculine and feminine traits were considered important.

Similarly, a recent experiment by Ihmels, Jungbauer, Shemla, and Wegge (2016) manipulated the severity of the crisis and found that communal characteristics were deemed useful only in a moderate crisis context. In a severe crisis, clearly agentic traits were considered more important. Such findings mirror suggestions that, in an acute turnover phase and in extreme crisis contexts, a more directive and authoritarian leadership is desirable (e.g., Slatter et al., 2011).

In a series of experiments, Kulich, Iacoviello, and Lorenzi-Cioldi (2016) demonstrated a link between the research on gender stereotypes and the research on change motivations. As in previous glass cliff studies, participants received information about male and female candidates for a leadership position who had comparable qualifications. Participants were also provided with information that the candidates had leadership traits that were predominately agentic (e.g., able to act rapidly, determined, assertive) or predominately communal (e.g., having a sense of communication, understanding, attentive to the problems of others). Overall there were four candidates to choose from: one agentic and one communal male, and one agentic and one communal female. Across three studies, the results revealed that participants more strongly preferred agentic candidates for poorly performing than for strongly performing companies. Moreover, the agentic candidates, compared to the communal ones, were perceived as more suitable, were associated with higher task-oriented leadership styles and lower person-oriented leadership styles, which in turn related to perceptions of higher potential to enact change and to signal change. Importantly, the gender of candidates did not play a role for candidate selection, and thus female as well as male agentic candidates were equally preferred crisis managers.

Taken together, these studies suggest that the glass cliff is not about gender per se, but about gendered stereotypes that are sensitive to the type of organizational context. Certain crisis situations seem to warrant leaders with communal traits, particularly when that leadership role is expected to be relatively passive or require people management skills. Thus, it is likely that women are chosen for crisis management roles when such roles lack agency expectations or attributions. Such appointments are likely to produce high-risk conditions for the careers of female leaders. The lack of agency means that women’s actions to actively improve the company’s situation are restricted, and consequently, they do not have the opportunity to prove their managerial abilities while at the same time being exposed to criticism and blame associated with the crisis. In contrast, if a role requires more agentic behaviors, such as roles associated with major crises or the need to radically turn a company around, recent experimental research suggests that the glass cliff phenomenon is not apparent. Thus, the role of actively managing and changing a company’s crisis, and thereby potentially boosting the manager’s career, is a role reserved for male and agentic leaders.

The Role of Intergroup Attitudes

So far the discussion has centered on explanatory mechanisms for the glass cliff linked to gender stereotypes more generally. Now we want to focus on the sparse evidence that illustrates the impact of individuals’ ideologies. This evidence can also reveal some information on the factors driving glass cliffs. On an individual level, the motivation for the glass cliff may be a negative bias in the sense that the motivation to select minority group members in difficult circumstances is to penalize them or set them up to fail. It could also be a positive bias, in the sense that people particularly trust women and think that they are better suited to handle a crisis. Thus, people’s hostile as well as benevolent motivations may contribute to the glass cliff phenomenon. Research into these dynamics is still sparse, apart from a few disparate findings.

Political and Hierarchy-Related Ideology

Within politics, the glass cliff has occurred particularly in right-wing parties (Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, Kulich et al., 2014; UMP in France, Ifop, 2011), which supports the assumption that right-wing ideology may underlie the appointment of minority groups to hard-to-win seats. The motivation behind such minority group selections may be two-fold: it may be a response to pressures to present minority candidates while preventing their success through these unfavorable conditions. Indeed, in the context of gender, a study by Brown and colleagues (2011, Study 4) demonstrated that only individuals high in social dominance (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994) and system justification ideologies (Kay & Jost, 2003) preferred female leaders in threat conditions. This suggests that people who support the status quo, such as those holding conservative right-wing ideologies, may choose women and other minority individuals in threatening contexts in order to see them fail and thus keep up the male (majority group) dominated system.

At the same time, Kulich and colleagues (2014) showed that, for the main U.K. left-wing party (Labour Party), glass cliff appointments were not apparent. Indeed, an inverse pattern with a tendency toward giving minority groups more winnable seats occurred; they created all female short-lists to insure that an equal proportion of female and male candidates would run for political seats that were easy, versus difficult, to win. Thus, this left-wing party was conscious of a glass cliff tendency and actively sought out measures to avoid it. But the need for such policies suggests that left-wing parties may also be prone to glass cliffs. Evidence in this sense comes from France, where a glass cliff was observed for the major right (UMP) and left-wing party (Socialist Party) in the 2007 legislative elections (but not in the 2011 cantonal elections; Ifop, 2011; Kulich et al., 2017).

Left-wing ideologies are traditionally more favorable towards diversity so why should they place minority groups in such precarious contexts? Do they perceive a real potential in minorities for their capacities to change the situation? Some preliminary understanding can be drawn from two unpublished experimental study, with a student sample of French voters and a convenient sample of Swiss voters, that investigated the impact of political orientation on the choice of ethnic minorities in a glass cliff experiment (Kulich, Iacoviello, & Assilaméhou-Kunz, 2016). Participants read about two political regions in their country in which the party in question had either won or lost the past election and were then asked to decide if the presented candidate should run in the easy-to-win or hard-to win region. The origin of the candidate was manipulated as being either French/Swiss or Algerian. Results showed that only left-wing voters produced a glass cliff for ethnic minorities, by nominating the Algerian candidate more often for the unwinnable than the winnable context. And they did so as they believed that the Algerian had a higher change potential.

These initial observational and experimental studies provide mixed evidence about the role of political ideologies in glass cliff contexts, as both left- and right-wing orientation may lead to glass cliff appointments (if not actively addressed by affirmative action policies). It seems thus an important question to ask whether parties and voters with different political ideologies make glass cliff decisions for distinct reasons. This awaits further scientific clarification.

Gender Ideology

Gartzia, Ryan, Balluerka, and Aritzeta (2012) investigated different crisis contexts and the impact of sexist attitudes on glass cliff selections. Their results demonstrate that those who scored higher on measures of sexism were insensitive to the type of leadership context (agentic, communal, or a control condition) as they always preferred male candidates for leadership positions. In contrast, those who scored lower on sexist ideology adapted their leadership choices and thus drove the glass cliff finding in control contexts or contexts where communality is perceived to be important. Kulich, Iacoviello, and Lorenzi-Cioldi (2015) added to this finding as they tested the impact of hostile sexist attitudes in a classic glass cliff experiment that compared a poor to a strong performance context. Here, participants low in sexism showed a preference for a woman in a poorly performing company compared to those higher in hostile attitudes. Similar to left-wing voters who preferred ethnic minorities in a precarious context, people with lower sexism scores preferred a woman in such a context.

Overall future investigations should test if those who adhere to traditional views may select minorities in order to penalize them, while those who believe in minorities’ competences may choose them because they believe in their specific capacities in crises contexts. Both hypothetical motivations lead to the same outcome—the glass cliff—but the underlying motivations are very different. A more systematic study of such dynamics awaits empirical testing.

The Role of Ingroup Bias

Across the body of literature on the glass cliff, participant gender has been shown to not systematically affect glass cliff selection. The exception is one published study by Hunt-Early (2012) that demonstrated that female participants favored a female over a male candidate in a crisis context, but not male participants. Considering that in-group favoritism (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) usually guides individuals’ behavior, this could mean that women particularly trust other women to be capable to solve the crisis. Of course, an alternative interpretation could be that individuals who are not prototypical of the group, such as female managers, are excluded from the group and punished for not being prototypical (e.g., queen bee phenomenon, Derks, van Laar, & Ellemers, 2016; black sheep effect, Marques & Paez, 1994). Although theoretically interesting, the participant gender effect has not been replicated, and interpretations should be made with care.

Perceptions of Glass Cliff Contexts

This section reflects on how decision makers perceive the precariousness of glass cliffs and thus respond to such unequal situations, and on women’s own leadership preferences.

Perceptions of Precariousness

Are glass cliff situations perceived as precarious and thus threatening to the careers of appointed managers? Ashby and colleagues (2007) found in their experimental study that participants choosing men to lead a difficult legal case were more likely to recognize it as a high-risk case than participants who chose women. Moreover, Haslam and Ryan (2008, Study 3) found that participants thought that a leadership position in a crisis context was a better career opportunity for a woman, than it was for a comparable man. Moreover, the more stressful a crisis position was perceived to be, the more suitable they thought a woman would be for this position.

Such results suggest that participants believe that women’s careers could benefit more from such difficult jobs than could men’s. This may be because, at the upper echelons in particular, women have far fewer job opportunities compared to men and thus such leader positions, even if they are stressful and precarious, are considered good opportunities. Further potential interpretations, which Haslam and Ryan (2008) have alluded to, were that women might be deliberately allocated to stressful positions either in the belief that women inherently possess the qualities to manage such situations, or because they did not want to expose men to these unfavorable situations. Again, a positive as well as a negative bias may be competing drivers of the effect.

Another line of research by Rink, Ryan, and Stoker (2013) investigated the precariousness of crisis positions destined for men and for women. They manipulated the availability of social support that a new leader would receive from stakeholders and senior management in a crisis context. Findings showed that when a new leader can rely on social support, male leaders were favored because they were expected to establish more acceptance amongst stakeholders than women. However, when these resources were absent, and the situation was particularly precarious, then a female leader was preferred. Indeed, a woman was perceived as more able to create acceptance because she had the communal traits needed to establish that social support. The crisis situations that are equipped with social support may be challenging but can be overcome when leader decisions are backed by the organization. However, if women only get their turn when this support is unavailable, the glass cliff becomes even more precarious.

Women’s Choices

So far we have considered how individuals make decisions about candidates in glass cliff positions, we have yet to examine the choices of the potential candidates themselves. More broadly, research demonstrates that women often do not make the same career decisions as men, for many reasons including gender stereotypes and gender role expectations (Kinahan, 2014). What about the glass cliff? Do men and women make different career decision in crisis contexts compared to non-crisis contexts? It may be that women might be more willing to take on crisis leadership roles due to a lack of other opportunities, or because they want to prove themselves in particularly challenging contexts. Rink, Ryan, and Stoker (2012) examined this question by asking women and men for their preferences when faced with more or less challenging leadership positions. The results demonstrated that it was actually men, and not women, who were more attracted to challenging leadership positions. Moreover, when asked to evaluate the possibility of working in a position where financial versus social resources were available, women rated more negatively conditions that lacked social resources in terms of lack of support by subordinates, whereas men reacted more negatively about a lack of financial resources. This was because women expected their degree of influence to depend on the social support they had and men expected that the financial resources would give them more influence. It seems that women are well aware that a lack of support within an organization may be particularly risky for them. In view of the heightened riskiness of such glass cliff positions for women’s careers, it is of little surprise that women withdraw from exposing themselves to contexts that are likely to damage their careers.

Although quantitative studies have not been able to explain the glass cliff on the basis of women’s individual choices, qualitative research provides some evidence on how women may feel pushed to explicitly seek out or accept such positions, particularly in male environments. Glass and Cook (2016) conducted a series of interviews that revealed that female managers reported seeking out particularly challenging tasks to give themselves credibility as effective leaders. However, some women also reported that, if they did not accept risky roles, they would risk not being considered for future promotions. Moreover, the interviews revealed that dealing successfully with crisis situations would then give women the reputation and recognition as “crisis specialists,” resulting in repeated exposure to similarly challenging missions.

Consequences of Glass Cliffs

We have already learned that crisis situations do not present male and female leaders with objectively equivalent challenges. It is inherent in leaders’ roles that they have to handle and find solutions for difficult situations, however, for female leaders, such crisis situations are likely to come with additional obstacles linked to the roles and expectations with which women are stereotypically associated.

Several inequalities in the perceptions of women in glass cliff positions, compared to men, have been discussed here. For example, women’s suitability for a crisis management role is perceived as heightened when the position is perceived as particularly stressful (Haslam & Ryan, 2008); in parallel, they are more likely than men to be allocated such a role when there is a lack of social support (Rink et al., 2013), and people think that such positions involve lower risks for the women’ careers than for men’s (Ashby et al., 2007; see also Haslam & Ryan, 2008). Such findings suggest that the precariousness of glass cliffs is not acknowledged and that such positions are even considered as opportunities for women (Ryan et al., 2007). Thus, if women struggle with such challenging tasks, and if their actions are restricted to passive leader roles (Ryan et al., 2011), a likely consequence is that women will be personally blamed for negative outcomes instead of considering the organizational context as an unfavorable predisposition for such failure (Ryan & Haslam, 2007).

An added complexity is the fact that women’s exact role is somewhat ambiguous—they may become crisis leaders for two different reasons: either as a passive role (i.e., signaling change, taking responsibility, or dealing with personnel issues; Ryan et al., 2011), or for their perceived agency (as agents of actual performance improvement; Kulich et al., 2016). Having to deal with difficult situations while lacking clarity about one’s role creates challenges that would be difficult to overcome by any leader, male or female.

Furthermore, a body of research demonstrates that the non-stereotypical behaviors of women are likely to be met with unequal and often negative evaluations. This means that typically managerial agentic acts may be positively received if enacted by a man but may be punished or even sabotaged if the actor is a woman (see the backlash effect, Livingstone, Rosette, & Washington, 2012; Rudman, 1998; Rudman & Glick, 1999; or shifting standards research by Biernat & Manis, 1994; Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Moreover, if atypical leaders make mistakes they tend to be punished more than prototypical leaders (Brescoll, Dawson, & Uhlmann, 2010). This latter finding is further supported by research on the savior effect, which revealed that, compared to white male leaders, minority leaders were more likely to be replaced by a white man following negative performances (Cook & Glass, 2014a). Thus, women and ethnic minorities are not only more likely to be appointed to high risk positions, but they are more likely than white men to get negative evaluations and they are given less time to prove themselves, which lays out a more stressful and risky context for these groups.

Another line of research has investigated reactions to female director appointments and suggested that investor reactions can be negative (Ahern & Dittmar, 2012). In an examination of top executive director announcements between 1990 and 2000, Lee and James (2007) found that investor reactions (subjective market performance) were more positive following male appointments than following female appointments. A similar finding was revealed in an archival data of U.K. FTSE 100 companies in the period of 2001 to 2005. Here, Haslam and colleagues (2010) found that market-based measures were negatively correlated with a greater female presence on company boards. In contrast, no relationship between accounting-based measures and female presence in director positions was revealed. Such observations were also made in the French context. An analysis of CAC40 French companies between 2002 and 2006 showed that companies with more than 35% female managers (compared to those with fewer than 35% female managers) revealed stronger accounting-based performance (61% higher growth, 96% higher profitability, 34% higher productivity, 157% more jobs created) but weaker market performance (35% lower market price; Ferrary, 2010; see also Landrieux-Kartochian, 2010). As other research (e.g. Cook & Glass, 2011) suggests positive reactions under certain circumstances, these relationships are awaiting meta-analytical evidence to understand the main tendency.

Such findings demonstrate that women selected for glass cliff positions face a double burden. First, they achieve their position in crisis times and thus face a precarious career trajectory; then, investors may in some cases react negatively to these female director appointments, devaluing these women (Haslam et al., 2010). This suggests that the precariousness of the glass cliff is not limited to conditions of crisis per se, but they also further trigger consequences that are likely to be different for women and men, as men are more likely to be treated as “saviors” and women as bearers of uncertainty.

Taken together, these observations suggest that women on a glass cliff are likely exposed to higher risks to fail and to higher psychological strain not simply because it is more difficult to manage a crisis, but because the conditions in which they are asked to work are not comparable to those of men. First, women are consciously exposed to stressful and risky situations (e.g., Haslam & Ryan, 2008; Rink et al., 2012); second, their agency and actions are likely to be devalued (e.g., Cook & Glass, 2014a; Haslam et al., 2010; Kulich et al., 2011); third, their role is predestined to be the one of a scapegoat (Ryan et al., 2011); fourth, they are left in ambiguity as to the motivations behind their appointments (Kulich et al., 2016); and finally, their leader roles are not supported internally (Rink et al., 2013) or externally (Haslam et al., 2010). Exposure to some or all of these stressors will likely harm women and their careers.

Indeed, Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, Kulich, and Wilson-Kovacs (2009) proposed that glass cliffs, in combination with experiences of gender discrimination, may lead to disidentification from the organization, which in turn may have a negative impact on job satisfaction and turnover. Organizational identification protects individuals from damage to their well being in terms of stress or burnout (Haslam, 2004). Thus, women’s reactions to such hopeless situations are likely to involve a negative impact on their well being. Moreover, organizational disidentification is linked to heightened turnover, as female managers are likely to opt out of such hostile work-contexts (Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, Kulich, & Atkins, 2007; Ryan, Kulich, Haslam, Hersby, & Atkins, 2008). Sabharval (2015) investigated women’s opt-out decisions in data from the 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. She found that in policy agencies within the U.S. Federal Government, where women had the least power and experienced the most inequality (i.e., distributive and constituent policy agencies), women were more likely to leave the institutions compared to those policy agencies (redistributive and regulatory) where women felt more valued. Thus, devaluation and working in risky positions drives women to quit their work place. The authors interpreted such turnover tendencies as consequences of “falling off a glass cliff.”


The glass cliff describes the precarious nature of women’s and ethnic minorities’ appointments to positions of leadership and power in times of crisis. Many different forms of the glass cliff exist, and what can be defined as a glass cliff is often a complex interaction of the type of crisis, the motivations for which a woman is appointed, and the resources the leader is given to deal with the situation. Thus, the precariousness of glass cliff positions arises not only from appointments following poor performance or scandals, but also from risky circumstances that accompany leadership appointments that are likely to lead to failure. When crisis situations favor female appointments, it is often not for their ability to deal with the situation but rather to fulfill passive, communal leadership roles with little power and influence on the general bearings of the crisis situation. Such appointments risk turning women into marionettes who are used as scapegoats and as “window dressing” strategies and deprives them of career opportunities. The lack of acknowledgment and social support that comes with such positions is likely to expose minority group leaders to diverse stress factors and blame. In contrast, (white) men are likely to be sought out to manage acute or severe crises and turnaround situations that may, if successful, be real career springboards.

From this analysis of the nature of glass cliffs, we conclude that they are not inevitable if certain contextual factors are dealt with. One important factor that qualifies specific crisis contexts as glass cliffs is the support structures surrounding such positions. If women and members of other minority groups were given the power and trust necessary to effectively enact their leader roles, allowing them to feel empowered through their work, and treating them with organizational justice and equality, as well providing them with social support and resources, then glass cliffs would not be so precarious.

Further Reading

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Kulich, C., Iacoviello, V., & Lorenzi-Cioldi, F. (2015). Refining the conditions and causes of the glass cliff: Hostility, signalling change, or solving the crisis? In K. Faniko, F. Lorenzi-Cioldi, O. Sarrasin, & E. Mayor (Eds.). Gender and social hierarchies: Perspectives from social psychology (pp. 98–109). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Ryan, M. K., Kulich, C., Haslam, S. A., Hersby, M., & Atkins, C. (2008). Examining gendered experiences beyond the glass ceiling: The precariousness of the glass cliff and the gender pay gap. In S. Vinnicombe, R. Burke, V. Singh, D. Bilimoria, & M. Huse (Eds.), Women on corporate boards of directors: Research and practice (pp. 165–183). Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.Find this resource:


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