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Glass Cliff

Written by

Tiffany Clark

Reviewed by

VidCruiter Editorial Team

Last Modified

May 16, 2024
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The glass cliff is a term used to describe the phenomenon whereby a woman or member of a minority group is more likely to break the “glass ceiling” during times of downturn or crisis when the risk of failure is more likely. 


In 2005, the term glass cliff was coined by Alex Haslam and Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter as a response to a U.K. Times report that analyzed the performance of several companies on the London Stock Exchange. According to the report, female executives were the root cause of the poor performance experienced by many of these organizations. Haslam and Ryan analyzed the findings with a study of their own, which revealed that women were more often appointed to leadership positions at companies when the organizations experienced poor performance in the preceding months. 


In short, the study conducted by Haslam and Ryan demonstrated that women are often brought into leadership positions in dire times at a company when they stand a minimal chance of success. Ultimately, the failures experienced by these female executives were the equivalent of breaking the glass ceiling only to be pushed off a glass cliff, hence the name of the term. 


In 2013, Utah State University researchers Christy Glass and Alison Cooke conducted a study to further explore the glass cliff phenomenon, but they took the research a step further. Glass and Cooke found that along with women, the glass cliff phenomenon also applies to men and women of color and other occupational minorities. They found that women and people of color were more likely than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing organizations. 


Glass Cliff Examples


As an example of a glass cliff, suppose a retail company has been experiencing declining sales and criticism of the company’s workplace culture. Added to these concerns is the fact that the company has also endured a public relations fiasco regarding a lack of gender equality in the organization’s leadership. 


To respond to all of the issues the company is facing, the stakeholders appoint its first female CEO, a seasoned professional with a background in managing smaller retail chains. Despite her experience, the new CEO has never navigated the types of troubles this retail company is facing. 


Perhaps the CEO has some small successes, but the deep-seated challenges at the company are nearly insurmountable under the best of conditions. The CEO is held responsible, even though the problems existed when she was hired, and likely no one person could have resolved them. In this scenario, the CEO was set atop a glass cliff, a situation designed for high visibility but with a high failure risk because of poor timing, inadequate support, and overwhelming challenges. 


Related Terms

Glass Ceiling

refers to the invisible barrier preventing women and minorities from advancing to the highest levels within an organization or institution, even if their competencies and achievements are greater than those of white men.

Paper Ceiling

is a term that refers to invisible barriers impeding the career progress of people who lack formal academic qualifications such as a college degree. In this scenario, a worker has the same skills, experience, and practical knowledge as degreed colleagues but can’t advance because of their lack of educational credentials.

Bamboo Ceiling

addresses the invisible barriers faced by Asian Americans in the professional landscape. In this landscape, Asian Americans may be well-represented in lower to middle positions but underrepresented in leadership roles.

Positive Discrimination

refers to an organization’s practice of hiring members of disadvantaged groups and placing them in roles that have a high risk of failure.

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