Women can find themselves elevated to precarious professional positions. Illustration by Andy Smith

Not all women fall off the glass cliff

A disproportionate number of women end up in senior positions at failing companies. But what might first seem like a poisoned chalice could also be an opportunity to shine
January 9, 2024

There were mutterings of “glass cliff” recently when financier Alison Harding-Jones was appointed as the new head of global mergers and acquisitions at Deutsche Bank. The bank has been struggling with its global dealmaking, and many thought this was yet another example of a female leader inheriting an organisation in crisis or, in other words, being set up for failure.

Twenty years ago, psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam coined the term glass cliff to explain why women were over-represented in precarious leadership positions. They observed that women were more likely to be appointed to senior jobs after a consistent pattern of poor company performance, stepping into risky and uncertain leadership positions.   

The term builds on the expression glass ceiling created in the US in the mid-1980s to describe an invisible barrier to leadership positions for women and ethnic minorities. Soon, the phenomenon took on global variations: the complementary sticky floor (for women who are kept in the lower ranks of a company), bamboo ceiling (for Asian Americans) and canvas ceiling (for refugees who are denied positions in spite of their previous training and expertise). Meanwhile, new terms emerged for men who were described as riding the glass elevator and the glass escalator.

In the past 12 months, we have witnessed an unprecedented number of women breaking through the glass ceiling: Sue Carr became the first woman to head the judiciary in England and Wales; Carrie Mae Weems became the first black woman to win the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography; and Greta Gerwig was the first woman solely to direct a billion-dollar movie.

But there have been other female-firsts which were a bitter-sweet victory. Vanessa Hudson became CEO of an ailing Qantas; Hafize Gaye Erkan took the reins of Turkey’s central bank amid steep inflation and a declining currency; Sonia Guajajara became the first minister of indigenous peoples in Brazil just as the country’s Congress pushed through measures stripping back land rights. Then there was the cliff of all glass cliffs—Linda Yaccarino was appointed CEO of X, inheriting a company that had lost 80 per cent of its staff, 60 per cent of its US ad revenue and two-thirds of its value. And she has also had to negotiate a tricky predecessor who keeps undermining her decisionmaking and whose public comments have led to major brands pulling their marketing campaigns. Her appointment in May 2023 saw a massive spike in the use of “glass cliff” across the internet.

However, glass cliff assignments can be the career opportunity some women crave, giving them their chance to succeed and establish themselves as exceptional leaders. Kate Swann, the woman for whom the term glass cliff was originally coined, took over a struggling WH Smith in 2003. Just over 10 years later, she had managed to make the business profitable again. And therein lies the secret: it takes time to turn large organisations around. We may be whispering “glass cliff” behind the backs of Erkan, Yaccarino and Harding-Jones, but given time they may succeed in turning a glass cliff into a glass springboard.