The Glass Cliff Phenomenon

All of us have heard of the Glass Ceiling, the invisible barrier that prevents women from rising to the highest position in an organization. Women in the Workplace 2019, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org indicated that only 34% of senior management comprised women and as we move up to C-level positions, this number dipped to 21%. But, there are women who break through the glass ceiling particularly when an organization is facing a crisis. However, they often fall victim to the “glass cliff”.

An addition to the workplace vernacular is the ‘glass cliff”. British Professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, coined the term in 2005. In 2003, U.K.’s Times published a report stating “corporate Britain would be better off without women on the board” after analyzing the performance of 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange, and concluded that those with the most women were underperforming. Ryan and Haslam weren’t convinced of the findings and conducted their own study of the same set of companies. Their research discovered that during a period of overall stock‐market decline, firms that brought women to their boards were likely to have experienced bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men.

What is Glass Cliff?

Glass cliff refers to a phenomenon wherein women tend to be promoted to positions of power during times of crises, when failure is more likely. Women can rise to leadership, but when they’re brought in to turn things around during dire times, they have to bear the blame if things don’t go well. So while they’ve managed to break through the glass ceiling, they’re then pushed off the glass cliff.

Why does the glass cliff exist?

Researchers have proposed multiple reasons for the existence of this phenomenon. In 2011, psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller, then of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and Nyla R. Branscombe of the University of Kansas identified two possible causes: a “status quo bias” and gender stereotypes. “As long as a company headed by men performs well, there’s no perceived need to change its pattern of male leadership. Only if male leaders have maneuvered an organization into trouble is a switch to a female leader preferred.” Furthermore, when an organization is in crisis, they wrote, people tend to believe that “stereotypically female attributes (such as communication skills and the ability to encourage others)” are what the organization needs to turn things around.

How widespread is the glass cliff phenomenon?

The glass cliff phenomenon occurs in fields as diverse as finance, politics, technology, law and academia. Recent examples of prominent women facing glass cliffs include Marissa Mayer, who was appointed CEO of Yahoo in 2014 after it lost significant market share to Google, and Theresa May, who became England’s Prime Minister in 2016 after the Brexit referendum caused the pound to drop to historic lows. The number of glass cliff examples is increasing quickly particularly in government and business


Much was discussed about nations led by women being more successful at containing – and in the case of New Zealand even apparently eradicating – outbreaks of the Corona virus. From Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to Finland’s Sanna Marin, Norway’s Erna Solberg, female leaders have reportedly fought COVID-19 outbreaks more efficiently than many others, registering lower cases and lower death rates. While many factors are shaping the outcomes, leadership is undoubtedly one of the most important. By and large, it is the leaders who have already had to prove themselves who are the most effective, that very often means they are women.


1. Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over‐Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions (2005)

2. Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe, How Women End Up on the “Glass Cliff” (2011). Harvard Business Review

3. Oelbaum, Yael S., “Understanding the Glass Cliff Effect: Why Are Female Leaders Being Pushed Toward the Edge?” (2016). CUNY Academic Works.