The glass cliff

11 08 2011

photo courtesy Matthias Wesemeyer: http://www.fotos-in-berlin.de

The term “glass ceiling” is used to describe an invisible barrier in the workplace whereby women (as a group rather than as individuals) rise through the workplace ranks to a certain level but can’t seem to get through to the next level – be-it the executive suite or the boardroom. In some industries the glass ceiling exists, in others it no longer applies to women, but perhaps it applies to other groups.

However, a male colleague has introduced me to a new term describing the female experience at work. This lovely man works in a female dominated workplace and has a wife and friends in the same industry, so I suspect this has been a topic of conversation at his dinner table.

I introduce it here for your consideration and opinion.

The glass cliff

The term “glass cliff” was coined in 2004 by Prof Michelle Ryan and Prof Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter to describe a phenomenon where women were appointed to the top job in Fortune 500 companies only after the company had experienced a significant downturn, leaving them in a difficult, sometimes impossible position. The woman is then (to use a rather ironic cliche) left holding the baby – blamed for the failure, and blamed not only as an individual, but as a gender.

This phenomenon is particularly visible in politics. Evidence from Profs Ryan and Haslam showed that in safe political seats, men were more likely to be preselected. Women were more likely to be preselected in risky marginal seats. In Australia we have the examples of the first two women being promoted into the position of Premier, both at times when the party had experienced significant downturn and was facing election defeat (Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia). The same could be said of Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia. Overseas we have Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir elected as prime minister of Iceland after the country had gone into a major recession.

Failure is not always inevitable – Margaret Thatcher proved herself a survivor despite a series of glass cliffs including an appointment as Education Minister at a time of high student radicalism and riots, and became Prime Minister at a time when the UK had very high unemployment. She wasn’t the Iron Lady for nothing.

It will be interesting to watch Christine Lagarde, newly appointed to the International Monetary Fund after the scandal of Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s exit and revelations about the organisational culture. She is undoubtedly suitably qualified and experienced for the job. If anyone can overcome the issues of the IMF, surely it is she.

It has to be said that these women all took their chances. They probably knew what they were getting into but took the chance because at least it was an opportunity where there were few oppotunities. And yes, some women, like some men, are not good leaders.

And maybe, just maybe, they were being elected / appointed to these positions because it was felt that, as with Christine Lagarde, if anyone could retrieve the irretrievable, it was a woman.

But imagine what the good ones could have done in a good company.

More researchBruckmüller, S. & Branscombe, N. (2010). The glass cliff: When and why women are selected as leaders in crisis contexts. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (3), 433-451

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