Companies need to find ways to ensure that strategies for increasing workplace diversity are implemented and evaluated fairly. Female executives must develop strong networks to support them when / if they fall, and to make certain that before accepting any challenging senior positions, they are not being scapegoats for other people’s blunders.
By Lara Quentrall-Thomas
There has been much talk lately about The Glass Cliff replacing the Glass Ceiling, particularly as financial firms are trying all they can to recover investor confidence and financial stability. The term Glass Cliff refers to the appointment of women into leadership positions when there is an increased chance of criticism and / or failure – essentially where women are set up to fail, or fall off the cliff.
A Times article in 2003 reported that firms with women on their board performed worse than those will all male Boards, however more detailed analysis of the data showed that the appointment of women was NOT associated with a decline in performance, rather the reverse. In times of economic downturn the appointment of women to leadership positions has shown to result in a marked increase in share price, but the appointments generally followed months of poor performance preceding their appointment. In other words, women were more likely than men to be placed in positions that were already associated with poor corporate performance. This is the Glass Cliff.
Ryan and Haslam (British Journal of Management 2005) purported that, 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 are blamed for negative outcomes that were set in train well before they assumed their new roles.
Whilst much of the evidence of the Glass Cliff is anecdotal, most famously Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard, Kate Swan at WH Smith in the UK and Patricia Russo at Alcatel-Lucent (all three women were appointed to senior roles when share prices were tumbling), research demonstrates that whilst many male leaders find themselves in equally challenging jobs, women are especially at risk. Men and women differ in their ability to weather failure because when female executives are unable to improve company performance the corporate culture is very unforgiving and they quickly become outcasts. Men fall back on their networks or mentors, often securing new juicier appointments, whereas female leaders rarely get a second chance.
The Glass Cliff has been demonstrated in a number of fields, including FTSE 100 companies, politics, law and policing, and research suggests that unsafe positions may be particularly prevalent in male-dominated fields such as shipping, logistics and transport. But glass cliffs are not only found in industry. They are also in politics where women are asked to run in less winnable seats or given more precarious cabinet positions, and in the law, where women are assigned to more risky legal cases than are men.
I have not done any specific research on the subject, but the individuals responsible for the latest financial scandals and downfalls (Bernie Madoff, Alan Stanford, Fred Goodwin, etc) appear to be all male. Some of these firms may now seek the skill sets offered by women leaders to carry them into more transparent, ethical and profitable trading. Glass cliffs are beckoning - let’s hope they do not result in more sacrificial female lambs.