The 'glass cliff': How women and people of color are set up to fail in the workplace

Once minorities break the "glass ceiling," they often face the "glass cliff."
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/ Source: TMRW

When Dr. Isabel Geathers was offered a leadership opportunity at an organization several years ago, she called a former colleague who had some insight into the company. The colleague laid it out straight. "She told me that the leadership was just stepping in it. There were interactions (between leadership and staff) that were super intense and problematic. I had folks say to me, 'We know you're smart, we know why you were hired, but you need to prove yourself.' And that was that moment when I thought, 'Oh my god, I was brought in to clean up this mess.'"

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The phenomenon that Geathers experienced is known as the "glass cliff," where women and/or people of color are moved into leadership positions when times are tough or the organization is in crisis.

The term was first coined in 2005 by Michelle Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam in an article they wrote for the British Journal of Management. It builds on the idea of the "glass ceiling," which refers to barriers that women typically face in ascending to positions of power. By contrast, when women reach the glass cliff, they've achieved the leadership position, but are now in potentially treacherous situations that could lead to failure. As Ryan and Haslam explain, "Women are particularly likely to be placed in positions of leadership in circumstances of general financial downturn and downturn in company performance. In this way, such women can be seen to be placed on top of a 'glass cliff' in the sense that their leadership appointments are made in problematic organizational circumstances and hence are more precarious."

A similar 2013 study from two researchers at Utah State University found that the glass cliff phenomenon was also prevalent for people of color moving into leadership positions. Alison Cook and Christy Glass write: "Minority leaders face challenges that begin at the point of promotion and go beyond underrepresentation ... they are more likely to be appointed to struggling firms, creating greater obstacles to successful leadership than their white male peers."

Minority leaders "are more likely to be appointed to struggling firms, creating greater obstacles to successful leadership than their white male peers."

Alison Cook and Christy Glass, Utah State University

Geathers recognizes this feeling all too well. "You know what's fascinating about the glass cliff? Waiting for a company or an organization to be in a full-on crisis and then waiting to reach out to women to fix it. It's always a recognizable crisis — and dare I say, a crisis that's beyond fixing — before women get the acknowledgement or the actual promotion. And then that's twofold when you're a person of color. As a Black woman, I see this all the time," she said.

The glass cliff phenomenon presents a problem to the sustainability of an organization. When the going gets rough, a board might be more likely to make a leadership nomination that's seen as risky or radical. Translated: They're more likely to take a chance on someone who isn't a white man. But without the infrastructure to support the leadership transition through tricky times, the leader becomes "tokenized." They're simply a figurehead; and this, in essence, dooms them to fail. And it's reflected in the leadership disparities at the top of the top. In 2019, there was an increase in female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies — 33 women CEOs out of 500, up from 24 in 2018. And in June 2020, Fortune reported only five Black CEOs — a scant 1%.

As a veteran of nonprofits, Erica Rife has witnessed firsthand how individuals can be promoted to leadership roles without any kind of built-in support. "The nonprofit world will continue to struggle and get called out for inequitable behavior because there's so much work, there's no budget and there's always a question of resources, let alone this problematic, racialized and gendered environment," Rife said. She went on to describe several circumstances in her professional career where she watched women and/or people of color be promoted without any kind of training, support or professional development. "There was all the work to keep up the appearance of being an inclusive and diverse environment, and none of the infrastructure," said Rife.

Geathers echoes this sentiment: "I have issues when people of color or women are put into leadership positions and it's purely ornamental. If you're a woman/POC and you're promoted and you're working up through the ranks of an organization, you actually need support at all levels. This presupposes that your employees have been trained, they've had access, they've had the opportunity to engage deeply and meaningful with women or POCs in the organization, so when people step into these roles, they're able to do their jobs. But that rarely happens."

If female and/or POC leaders fail in righting the ship, they simply leave, which can be even more disruptive for the professional success of both the individual and the organization. In November 2019, Melisa Miller stepped down as the CEO of Alliance Data Systems, a Fortune 500 company, after a mere five months on the job. She had been promoted to the position in the middle of a company-wide relocation from Plano, Texas, to Ohio. Amid much speculation around her abrupt departure, there was the implication that Alliance Data Systems stock had not grown in the ways that were anticipated during her very brief leadership. Miller had been with Alliance Data since 2006 and was notably one of only 7% of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies at the time.

And when the CEO is a woman and a POC, the odds of a long tenure are even more limited. Mary Winston, the interim CEO of Bed Bath and Beyond (who identifies as a Black woman) was replaced by a permanent CEO (a white man) in 2019, leaving zero Black or Latinx women in a CEO position at a Fortune 500 Company right now.

Even if they are successful in spite of the obstacles presented by the glass cliff, women and/or POCs face another bind.

"It does feel like when we're promoted into these positions, you're being promoted as insurance," Geathers said. "Because then you're in the really difficult position if you do well in the role. Because you have to deal with the emotional toll of people being surprised that you're competent and good at your job. But the problem is that you're also penalized for being better than your predecessor or even knowing more than your bosses."

Organizations have to shift their mindset from thinking that the promotion of women and/or POCs as a "risky endeavor." Instead, they should focus on building the infrastructure to support a seamless leadership transition, as well as the long-term tenure of female/POC leaders. Ryan and Haslam stressed that the first step is recognizing and naming the glass cliff so that these invisible factors are more recognizable. "Ironically, too, it is apparent that, if overlooked, these factors can easily promote the very inequality that women's advancement is intended to redress."

Or, as Geathers summarized, "If you do fail, you play into all the stereotypes about women in leadership, Black women ... you become the perennial diversity hire."