Companies & Industries

The Glass Cliff


Are women leaders often set up to fail? There is a certain amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest yes

Posted on Winning the Talent War: August 5, 2008 9:52 AM

With the recent dismissal/demotion of Erin Callan (Lehman Brothers), Zoe Cruz (Morgan Stanley), and Sallie Krawcheck (Citi), a 2005 article in the British Journal of Management entitled "The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions" is being scrutinized anew.

In this article Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam confront the question: what sorts of jobs are women given when they finally make it into senior leadership positions? They make the case that more so than men, women are likely to find themselves on a glass cliff—dealing with situations that are seriously risky. In short, they are set up for failure.

Ryan and Haslam examine a study by Elizabeth Judge that purports to prove that when women are appointed to boards of directors they have a negative impact on a company's financial performance. First they demolish the basis for Judge's case—pointing to flaws in the underlying data. They then move on to propose an alternative explanation. In their words, "rather than the appointment of women leaders precipitating a drop in company performance ... a company's poor performance is a trigger for the appointment of women to the board." Women then become lightening rods—blamed for negative outcomes that were set in train well before they assumed their new roles.

There is a certain amount of anecdotal evidence for this "glass cliff." Most famously Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard), Kate Swan (W.H. Smith) and Patricia Russo (Alcatel-Lucent) were all appointed to top positions at a time of "tumbling share prices."Not that women are uniquely drafted into crisis ridden situations—plenty of male leaders find themselves in equally rough waters—but women can be especially at risk.

Recent research points to a clear-cut difference between men and women's ability to weather risk and failure. Data contained in a recent Harvard Business Review report (see The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology, June 2008) shows that when female executives wrestle with stormy weather and fail to right the ship corporate cultures can be unforgiving. Women leaders are seriously isolated, without mentors or sponsors or the equivalent of the "old boys' network" they find it impossible to rally support in the wake of failure. More so than men they crash and burn. The Athena Factor research shows that a significant proportion of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) believe that when they fail they don't get second chances.

Do you think women in senior ranks at your organization face a glass cliff? If so, can you share an example—no need to use real names.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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