- Business Insider spoke with Michelle Ryan, a social and organizational psychologist at the University of Exeter, the researcher who helped coin the phrase the “glass cliff.”
- The “glass cliff” is the research-backed phenomenon where a woman or person of colour is promoted to a senior leadership position during a difficult time for a company, when the risk of failure is high.
- It is a sister of the glass ceiling (the barriers that hold women and people of colour from leadership positions), and it fact is one major way women and non-white men break through it.
- According to Ryan, the combination of economic hardship from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the push for diversity means that women and people of colour are more likely to be set up on this “glass cliff.”
- In order to address the “glass cliff,” companies need to make sure women and people of colour chosen for leadership positions get the support they need to achieve success.
- Leaders also need to ensure that their diversity and inclusion efforts don’t stop at the election of a woman or person of colour to the C-suite.
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CEOs are under pressure from customers and employees (most of whom support the George Floyd protests), to increase diversity among all ranks, especially, at the top. Companies are pledging to diversify their boards and C-suites, meaning women and employees of colour are more likely to be promoted to leadership positions.
But employers need to ensure they aren’t unintentionally setting up new leaders for failure because of something called the “glass cliff.”
The glass cliff is the research-backed phenomenon wherein a woman or person of colour is promoted to a senior leadership position during a difficult time for a company, when the risk of failure is high. This phenomenon is one way women and people of colour break through the “glass ceiling,” which is a barrier that holds them back from leadership positions. But it doesn’t always set them up for success.
Now there’s no question that diversity in management and at the executive level is a good thing. A 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group found that increasing diversity in leadership teams increases profits. Another study of 22,000 firms found that companies with more women in their board rooms and on their executive teams were more profitable. When diversity increases, so does company performance.
However, the timing and manner wherein women and people of colour are promoted to these leadership positions is what matters here. Will women and people of colour be chosen for top positions only because of these precarious times? And will they be given the support they need?
The glass cliff could reinforce the harmful idea that women and people of colour can’t lead
In November 2003, the Times in London printed an article that implied the reason why so many companies were faring poorly was because they had women as leaders.
Michelle Ryan, along with her University of Exeter colleague Alex Haslam, decided to investigate the claim. Their research, published in 2005, found that it wasn’t that women were bad leaders, but that they were appointed leaders when companies were flailing. The “glass cliff” was coined.
“If women are appointed in times of crisis, it’s not that that women are unable to lead, but leading in a time of crisis is more difficult and more precarious than leading when everything is great,” Ryan told Business Insider.
Women and people of colour may indeed get picked to lead, but could be set up for failure.
“We might find that these women don’t last as long in these positions or that they may be highly criticised because there’s a lot going on. And that potentially reinforces the stereotype that women [and people of colour] aren’t good at leadership,” she said.
Ryan is currently investigating why women and people of colour are appointed to leadership positions in times of crisis. It could be coming from a number of places, Ryan noted. It could be out of good intentions (though Ryan said she doubts it). It could be because former leaders view non-white male executives as more expendable in an organisation, or that they think a non-white executive would attract a more sympathetic responses from the public. It also could be a form of diversity “tokenism,” or that putting a non-white male leader in charge is a signal of more changes to come within the company.
The last reason, companies seeking to signal change, might be what’s happening today, Ryan said.
“It’s not designed to be malignant against women and ethnic and racial minorities, but it still has the same effect,” she added.
How to address the glass cliff
The existence of the glass cliff does not mean that executives should avoid promoting women and people of colour. Nor does it mean a woman or a person of colour should pass up an opportunity in the C-suite.
The sad reality is, if women and people of colour don’t embrace the opportunity, it might be a while before another comes knocking at the door.
For every 100 men who were promoted to management over the period of 2018 to 2019, only 68 Latina women were promoted. That number was even less for Black women, at 58, per research by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org. You can count the number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs on one hand, and none of them are women.
“When everything is good, women and people of colour aren’t being promoted,” she said.
Instead, organisations need to ensure women and people of colour in senior leadership positions have the support they need, whether that’s bigger budgets, more time, or the support of others within the company.
Company leaders also need to know that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) doesn’t stop with the appointment of one executive.
“If organisations are saying ‘Right we’re going to diversify,’ you can’t just diversify by putting in different people. That’s a form of numerical diversity. If you want a culture of diversity, that’s a much harder thing to do,” Ryan said.
What Ryan is getting at is inclusion. It involves many things, and often requires DEI strategists to come in and help a company. It involves leaders speaking out about discrimination and taking an anti-racist stance (see this example from Boston Scientific), which encourages others in the organisation to follow suit. It means holding mid-level managers accountable for how diverse their teams are, and if their team members feel included or not. It means creating a culture where difference is celebrated (for example, not only having employee resource groups, but making sure concerns voiced in those groups make their way to senior management), DEI strategists previously told Business Insider.
“Throwing women and ethnic and racial minorities into senior leadership roles where there isn’t a culture of diversity, where there isn’t policies and practices in place that address issues of discrimination, sexism, harassment, racial harassment, ect., that creates its own crisis,” Ryan said.