By Harwant Khush, research consultant, Tero International 

“It’s a case of men going, ‘Wow, it can’t get any worse. Quick, let’s put a woman in charge!’” – British comedian Sandi Toksvig 

The pathways for women’s empowerment, professional success and leadership advancement have not been smooth trajectories. Reports continue to verify that women make up only a small part of top leadership positions in politics and business. 

Are there invisible barriers that keep them from the higher ranks of power? Is this the proverbial glass ceiling? 

In the words of Hillary Clinton, as she dropped out of the U.S. presidential race in 2008: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before. …” 

Since then, numerous women have passed through the glass ceiling cracks. However, when they get to the top positions of their career, they face added challenges of sustaining those positions. They confront the glass cliff. Their chances of being unsuccessful in those positions rise substantially. 

What is a glass cliff? 

Professors Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom are credited with coining the term “glass cliff” in 2004. They described the glass cliff phenomenon as a situation in which “women (and other minority groups) are more likely to occupy positions of leadership that are risky and precarious.” 

In a 2003 Times article titled “Women on Board: Help or Hindrance,” the authors concluded that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on board” as they negatively affect companies’ performance. 

In response, Ryan and Haslam examined the performance of 100 companies with men and women on their boards. Results confirmed “firms that brought women to their boards were likelier to have experienced a consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who brought on men.” 

Researchers concluded that women’s promotions under such challenging circumstances added invisible barriers to their leadership careers and increased chances of failure. 

Why don’t women perceive invisible risky barriers? What factors contribute to their failing from leadership ranks? 

Reasons for falling off the glass cliff 

Numerous factors have been specified to explain the glass cliff: 

  • More women are hired in a crisis or declining performance when administrators want someone to blame. 
  • Women are perceived as “more expendable and better scapegoats,” according to Kristin J. Anderson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown.
  • Societal values that reinforce perceptions of women as nurturing, empathetic and relationship-builders show women to be more like caretakers than transformational leaders. 
  • A “good ole boys” network and chauvinism may not support, mentor or share vital information with female leaders. 
  • There are times when some incompetent and unqualified women may be assigned leadership positions to enhance a company’s public image, political correctness and social progressiveness. 
  • For some women, a risky high leadership position is the only way for their career to move forward. They want to be seen in the C-suite, but they may not be competent to handle leadership positions. 

How to prevent the glass cliff 

The League of Women in Government provided helpful hints in their article titled “By knowing that the glass cliff exists, we can not only avoid falling off it, but climb over it.”

  • Don’t be afraid to say no: Women should be cautious in taking positions that seem too good to be true but are not aligned with their skills, knowledge and expertise. According to Amanda Marcovitch, the article’s writer, “saying no can be the ultimate form of self-respect.” 
  • Define success before you take the job: Know what success means to you. Familiarize with the company’s expectations and demands. 
  • Leave your ivory tower: Enhance linkages, collaborations, and a network of colleagues for constructive feedback and suggestions for improving the company and strengthening one’s position in the company. 

Women may pass through the glass ceiling cracks only to fall from the invisible cliff. Like the glass ceiling, the glass cliff is an issue that can be solved when women become aware of its existence. Then, working with the support structure, policy formulators and decision-makers, women can navigate the path to progress and sustain leadership positions. 

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