Imagine boarding a ship being steered by a very competent captain. Suddenly, your ship encounters an unforeseen, mighty storm, not giving the captain enough time to prepare himself and the ship, leading to disastrous consequences. Who would you blame- the ability of the captain or the out-of-control unfortunate situation? Something similar happens with women when placed in a corporate setup. With little or no time to prepare for severe crises, they are used as scapegoats to evade accountability for collective failures. Where one should be analysing the circumstances, the supposed incompetency of a whole gender takes the central stage in a largely male dominated corporate world – a phenomenon known as glass cliff.
DAWN OF THE THEORY:
In 2005, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of University of Exeter investigated a Times report of the UK which was published in 2003. The report claimed that “corporate Britain would be better off without women on the board”. This statement was made in congruence of the performance of FTSE 100 companies (Financial Times Stock Exchange) which deduced that most women were underperforming. The aforementioned researchers were unconvinced by the assertion and carried out their own study taking in account the same pool of companies. The inference of the study was that the overall stock market was on a downside since the preceding 5 months. Women were installed at higher positions more often by the weakly performing companies during this spell.
It is suggestive of a largely indiscernible obstacle that females need to quash in the professional setup. This piece of work was the cradle of the phenomenon with the catchy name ‘Glass Cliff’ which is new to the workplace jargon. It is kindred to the theory of glass ceiling.
Ensuing research in 2006 unearthed that female law students were given cases with higher risks of failure, It is grossly unjust that women in C-suite are expected to become the ultimate saviours of drowning companies.
15 years have passed by since Glass cliff was first introduced. It resurfaced again when the University of Missouri undertook an academic study. It iterated that activist investors are far more likely to buy shares of companies led by females in the light of crisis. They do this with the intention of directing management decisions. This is a testimony to the idea that women face differential treatment vis a vis men when given leadership positions.
DISTINCTION BETWEEN GLASS CLIFF AND GLASS CEILING:
The locution ‘Glass ceiling’ refers to the barriers that prevent women from reaching the pinnacle of their careers. It was first popularized in 1986. A Wall Street Journal article highlighted the corporate hierarchy and the invisible blockades that avert women from bagging a position in the board of the company.
It’s a distant dream of many to break through the ceiling but those who are successful in doing so are pushed off the sharp crag called the Glass cliff.
It is a theory which states that women are promoted to seniority and appointed as C-suite executives during atrocious times, when the likelihood of crash is high. Quintessentially applicable to females but is also used in reference to the marginalized sections//minorities.
Glass cliff is omnipresent as a concept, diversifying in the domains of finance, politics, technology and academia.
Alison Cook and Christy Glass attempted to attest this ideology through research. They scrutinized CEO transitions of the Fortune-500 for a 15 year bracket. The results were harmonious with Glass cliff. It was odds-on that occupational minorities defined as “white women and men and women of colour” were upgraded as the CEO of flailing companies. They were likely to get replaced by white men.
Only 6.6% women were leading fortune-500 companies in America in 2019. One of the contributing factors in this significantly low figure is that women avoid taking the position owing to the risk of failure.
PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND GLASS CLIFF:
It is widely accepted that crisis management is indicative of changing the entire way the current leadership is functioning. If a man is holding the position, the radical transition would be to induct a woman in order to diverge from the conventional ways of administering. This ‘female advantage’ roots out from the study where women self report and say that they are more democratic, participative and consensus seeking. These are the attributes that generally align with managing through change.
When participants of an experiment were asked to choose a male or female leader, the results were startling. 67% of them voted for the male candidate when the company was faring well, 63% on the other hand elected the female during a catastrophe. This fosters the need of a leader with people management skills rather than pushy decision making.
Psychologist Susanne Bruckmuller and Nyla Branscombe undertook an analysis in which they gave out the following conclusions: Women were desired to take over from ineffectual men but when women failed, men and women were equally probable to get designated. To condense the findings furthermore: Women are preferred in dire situations not because they are carved up for them but because men are no longer fit.
When a woman is placed in such a spot, she is expected to steer through the troubled waters. If unable, the whole blame is thrown on her. The company still builds its repute of being an organization that is both progressive and inclusive of diversity.
Contrarily if the company flourishes under her, the firm earns a name for its proficiency in appointing the right person at the right time.
From a neutral perspective, the savior’s effect is a psychological construct that makes a person feel the need to save other people.
Irrespective of the positive connotations running with it, the savior’s effect is what counteracts the success bestowed by the glass cliff. Once a woman takes over a role and inches closer toward the glass ceiling, her ouster is usually triggered by something called “the savior effect.” This phenomenon sees a company take a new direction only to revert to the old, tried, and true methods when the new direction fails to meet their expectations. Women who are ousted are almost always replaced by a white male “savior” and the stakeholders breathe a sigh of relief as a white man takes the reins again. This alludes to the society’s stereotypical preference of a man of caucasian, i.e “White”, ethnicity at any position of command. Therefore, in addition to being highly pertinent in the case of the glass cliff, the savior’s effect also holds in any situation where the command is held by an individual from a non-white/minority background. Ethnic minority group members are perceived as particularly capable in strenuous situations as the management believes in their stamina and determination to overcome stereotypes and discrimination which helped them advance in their respective careers.
For example, the recent midterm elections witnessed a record 110 women elected to Congress, including several “firsts”: the first Native American woman, Muslim woman, Somali-American woman, openly LGBTQ woman, youngest woman and African American woman representing Massachusetts are all headed to Congress next year.
The phenomenon is especially prominent in cases where women, who have been promoted against the odds but are involved in matters of controversy or – irrespective of the reason- deliver sub-par work products in their new capacity.
An adequate example would be the rise and fall of Carly Fiorina. Fiorina was appointed CEO at Hewlett-Packard as a transformational leader that would help the company get a fresh start. Her efforts jacked the stock price up by 6.5% until the dot-com bubble burst. What followed were the controversial decisions to lay off 30,000 employees and pursue a merger, but it was here fight with the board member Walter Hewlett that got her fired from the company.
However, not every successful woman falls off the cliff. Ginni Rometty has been Chairman, President, and Executive Officer at IBM from 2012 to 2020. She has led IBM through a very significant transition period and has always been dedicated towards promoting diversity in the organization. Owing to her efforts, IBM earned the prestigious Catalyst Award for advancing women & furthering cultural equality and diversity in business.
WHY DO WOMEN ACCEPT THESE POSITIONS?
Throughout history, innumerable things have stemmed out of women’s struggle with injustice, insecurity and prejudice. The fight to prove themselves with evidence is never-ending be it inside the four walls or workplace. As explained above, the glass cliff effect is pretty empirical.
“Boards have to make a selection and if they have limited choice, they’re going to take more risk and the best risk, and sometimes that’s the only possibility for a woman to jump for it and so she does. “Jane Stevenson, vice chairperson, korn ferry, said in an interview.
Women are more likely to accept these positions in crisis to be perceptible and with the thought that this might be the only opportunity for them to lead an organization. The advent of dealing with uncertainties gives them validity of being able to handle a disaster and often a chance of future promotion.
Take the example of British prime minister, Theresa may. She was willing to take up an unenviable job of heading the UK’s exit from the EU after her male counterparts walked away.
Surely, women perceive a lot of roles differently than men, with a stronger sense of belongingness and responsibility towards their commitments and an essence of tackling crisis situations with efficacy. Many women as reported by Cook and glass, researchers from Utah university, believed themselves to be rightly equipped for the job and termed them ‘turnaround artists’.
RAMIFICATIONS OF BEING RAMMED:
When talking about the gender gap, there’s always a price to pay for the wrestling side. Women who are in these situations haven’t been put with fair reasoning and opportunities to begin with, less so the consequences. We have observed that to overcome the biases and uncertainty, they had to prove themselves again and again and the way they did that was to take up the toughest challenges all through their career.
Crisis management skills are inherent to any leader, but for female candidates, this comes with some additional stereotypical notions and expectations. For example, women’s suitability for a crisis management role is perceived as heightened when the position is particularly stressful (Haslam & Ryan, 2008); and if women struggle in these set-up-to-fail positions, they are blamed personally instead of considering organisational factors for such failure.
Another research has shown the relationship between women leaders and investor’s reactions as negative. In an examination of top executive director announcements between 1990 and 2000, Lee and James (2007) found that investor reactions (subjective market performance) were more positive following male appointments than following female appointments. This proves to be twice as challenging for women first because of their already precarious trajectory of career and then they’re devalued by the investors.
As a result, women and minority CEOs face unusual pressure which an ordinary leader won’t. We have to keep in mind that there’s a limited chance of experiment- often only one in these situations, therefore forcing them to execute it flawlessly in the first attempt. One mistake and all of the efforts are down the drain, even more so because they’re women. In exaggerated settings, it even means derailing their career forever.
On a more optimistic side, there are women overcoming the glass cliff with historical appreciation like the case of Mary Barra, CEO of general motors. We also have to note that those who manage to survive the crisis are exceptional people and are rewarded fairly in this winner-takes-all gimmick.
Thus, according to these observations, women are more prone to failure and psychological strain which negatively affect their wellbeing. The rate of survival on a glass cliff thus becomes bleak and nebulous to say the least.
GLASS CLIFF- AN OPPORTUNITY?
Till now, we’ve seen the negative impact of glass cliff and how it can prove to be potentially detrimental to the careers of women and ethnic or racial minorities. What if we tell you that there is a bright spot amidst the ubiquitous dark when we talk about glass cliff? Yes, there is a positive side to it. It helps in breaking the ‘unbreakable’ glass ceiling, providing women and minority communities an opportunity to reach the top level and prove their mettle. In unsuitable conditions, when the odds of failure are greater, if one willingly takes up the challenge and manages to successfully navigate through the crisis, glass ceiling may serve as an opportunity.
One of the best examples in this context is that of Anne Mulcahy, who was appointed as the CEO of Xerox when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000. She not only led a successful turnaround, but also handed over the company to another female- Ursula Burns, the first African-American female of the Fortune 500.
THE WAY FORWARD:
In a corporate setup, women are generally put into boxes, expected to conform to the stereotypes associated with their gender. It is presumed that a woman with children would devote more time to her family than her job because that’s what “good mothers” are supposed to do, whereas men are exempted from all such assumptions. And even if a woman manages to break through this stereotype, she is associated with the typically feminine leadership style which is considered to be the most effective one during a crisis. This gives rise to ‘think crisis-think female’ and ‘think manager-think male’ line of thought.
For an organization looking forward to break these conscious and subconscious stereotypes, firstly, it becomes quintessential to sensitize the HR department and secondly, the reliance should be more on quantitative methods to evaluate individuals for top positions as the subjective opinions may be colored. In this case, the assessment on the basis of data-driven performance evaluation factors, AI and business simulations, substantially reduces the scope of personal bias influencing the decision-making process.
Here again, it’s not a cakewalk for women. According to a study by Pinsight, around 2x more men are groomed for top positions than women are. Not so surprisingly, in a study of 55,000+ executives, it was found that over 50% didn’t assess even a single female candidate in their search for a new CEO. From this, there originates the need for making training programs more inclusive, focussing more on individual skills than anything else.
Sometimes, there emerges an apprehension that with all these interventions and policies aimed at promotion of gender diversity, the ideas of gender inequality and women being the “odd ones out” are implicitly reinforced. This requires a gender-neutral approach and a need to acknowledge stereotypes surrounding men and leadership too.
At the end of the day, it’s all about normalizing female leadership because when people get used to seeing women in higher positions, they no longer look at them through the lens blurred with bias or think of using them as scapegoats in precarious situations. It needs to be understood that just like all men do not exhibit the same characteristics professionally and their individuality is valued, women too, deserve to be seen for who they really are and equipped with the same tools, opportunities and freedom to take decisions as their male counterparts.
When organizations strive for a diverse climate, the efforts shouldn’t be just for namesake. The value should be embraced with an open heart and ingrained in the work culture and the core ideology that guides the organization.