The “glass cliff” is an elegant metaphor, but also an ugly reality.
Research has found that women are more likely to be appointed to top jobs in a crisis—and, consequently, more likely to fail. Theresa May, the UK’s new prime minister, is coming into the job when the potential cliff looks particularly sheer.
The “glass cliff” was coined in 2005 by researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK, who studied data from FTSE100 companies. Extending the idea of a “glass ceiling”—an invisible cap on women’s career advancement—the researchers used the image to describe their finding that women are more likely to be appointed to run companies when those companies are approaching catastrophic failure or already failing.
May might find it an apt image right now. The UK is in the biggest mess of recent political history, following its vote to exit the European Union. Implementing Brexit will be an incredibly thankless task. May herself opposed it, nearly half the country voted against it (and some who voted for it now regret that vote), and there is no precedent or agreement for how such an exit should be done.
At one time, being prime minister might have seemed a dream job, but after the Brexit vote it’s also a poisoned chalice. And May has been handed it. Why now?
“From the outside it certainly appears as if this is a classic glass cliff appointment,” said Christy Glass, a professor of sociology at Utah State University, who has studied the phenomenon. “She is taking the reigns during a time of crisis where the future is uncertain.”
May has been competently working at the forefront of her party, the Conservatives, for years, including six in one of the most high-profile roles, overseeing security and counterterrorism as home secretary. Her ascendence to lead her party and the nation might well have nothing to do with her gender. And she may be exactly the right person for the job.
But before the Brexit vote, May wasn’t seen as the most likely contender to be the next prime minister. The smart money was on George Osborne, who oversaw the economy as chancellor of the exchequer, or Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London. Both melted into the shadows before the leadership contest—Osborne quietly, Johnson publicly.
That leaves May with a thankless and risky job, Glass said. “She didn’t cause the crisis, obviously, but she will face intense scrutiny and pressure to “fix” the crisis,” she said. “If she cannot do so in a short period of time, our research suggest she may be blamed for the crisis and replaced.”
In a 2015 study published in The Leadership Quarterly, Glass and fellow Utah researcher Alison Cook studied every female CEO ever appointed to a Fortune 500 company through 2014 (there were 52). They found that 42% were appointed during times of crisis, vs just 22% of male CEOs.
Even if firms weren’t in crisis, they were often in flux. One in ten female heads started their tenure during a major transition (one that was not necessarily due to failure), while none of the men CEOs did so. On the flip side, Glass pointed out, 70% of men CEOs were appointed when the firm was doing well, while only 44% of women CEOs took on the job during the boom times.
Glass and Cook’s interviews with women CEOs supported the “glass cliff” idea.
“The interviews reveal that women often accept high-risk leadership roles because they feel they have to in order to prove their capabilities,” Glass said. “They also report that in doing so they face very intense scrutiny and pressures to perform—to ‘save’ their firms from crisis.”
May is certainly not the first person to face the glass cliff in politics. Research has found that racial minorities are also more likely to be promoted in bad times, and Barack Obama, the US’s first black president, can be seen as a “glass cliff” leader. Obama was elected in 2008, during the worst financial crisis in the country’s recent history. And sure enough, Glass said, “Throughout his first term he was often blamed for the crisis—which obviously preceded his election.”
There are several possible reasons for the more-frequent appointment of women at times of crisis. Companies might want to signal dramatic change, or they may be driven by the stereotypes of women as warmer or better at relating to others. Difficult times might also call for exceptional leaders, and given that women who have risen very high in companies might have had to work harder to achieve their position, those near the top can be particularly competent.
Or it might just be old-fashioned institutional sexism: The notion that a woman will do a good enough job for a while, getting the business (or in May’s case, a whole country) into better shape for when the next white man can take over. It’s a phenomenon the Utah researchers dubbed “the savior effect.”