October 20, 2015 Practice Points

Women Leaders Confront the Glass Cliff

By Angela A. Turiano

Marianne Cooper, author, sociologist and lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, recently posted an article discussing the “glass cliff”—a term that describes the phenomenon of women being more likely to be put into leadership roles under “risky and precarious circumstances,” thereby increasing their odds of failure.

The article details various studies over the last 10 years which demonstrate the validity of this phenomenon as follows:

•In the 2005 general election in the UK, it was found that the Conservative party selected women to oppose seats that were essentially unwinnable while men were chosen to run in much less challenging contests;

•Over a 15 year period, it was shown that Fortune 500 companies were more likely to promote white women, (and men and women of color), over white men to CEO when firms were in distress; and,

•Law students were found more likely to assign a difficult legal matter to female attorneys.

The research, Cooper states, illustrates that in addition to getting fewer leadership opportunities than men, women are now getting more difficult and challenging opportunities. In exploring why the phenomenon exists, Cooper concludes that it is because when we “think crisis—we think female.” Specifically, women are thought, more than their male counterparts, to possess traits perceived as important during times of crisis, such as the ability to collaborate and interact well with others.

The increased chance of failure associated with the glass cliff has negative consequences, including reinforcement of the stereotype that men are better leaders and the blame for inherited problems and/or inevitable failures being placed on female leaders, ultimately hampering their career advancement.

The article also showed the disparity in gender reactions to the glass cliff by referencing a study wherein, when asked to read a newspaper article about the topic, women were more likely to “recognize its prevalence and its unfairness,” while men were more likely to question the validity of the research and deny the existence of the phenomenon altogether.

Finally, Cooper notes that research has shown that blacks and other ethnic minorities are also confronting the glass cliff.  She concludes the article with the query: “In light of evidence documenting the glass cliff, why do you think many continue to deny that it exists?”

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, Marianne Cooper, glass cliff, leadership

Angela A. Turiano works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. in New York, New York


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