The dangers of 'glass cliff' for women in leadership roles

Research shows that women and people of color are more likely to be placed into leadership positions when an organization is in crisis mode, leaving them in a precarious situation, at risk of falling over the "glass cliff" the BBC reported Feb. 6.

Female and other underrepresented leaders have the opportunity to prove their greatness in these positions, but are also hyper-scrutinized given the crisis of the situation. One analysis of FTSE 100 companies found that women were more likely to be appointed to the boards of already underperforming companies, with the researchers coining the phenomenon that subtle discrimination places women in as the "glass cliff."

"With the glass cliff [you're] starting with a deficit," Alison Cook, PhD, a professor of management at Utah State University. "You're not only asking them to help you succeed, but pull you out of the depths and then be successful. It's a tall order."

This held true across a number of organizations, including politics, coaching sports teams and even experiments, with people more likely to take a chance on a woman when there is existing failure. The evidence also suggests that there is no difference in the size of the "glass cliff" effect between women and people of color. 

Explanations for why the "glass cliff" occurs are put down to belief that stereotypically female traits are good for crisis leadership, sending an external signal that the organization is changing socially or prejudice among decision makers. 

To combat the phenomenon, some experts recommend implementing quotas to level the playing field. 

"If you have some form of quotas it is much harder to have these biased decision processes," Thekla Morgenroth, PhD, assistant professor at Purdue University in Indiana told the BBC. "That's a very practical thing that organizations can implement."


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