Glass Ceiling? Look Out for the Glass Cliff!

  • A woman on the edgeThe Find: Recent resignations of women in top leadership positions have one economist wondering if the executive positions given to women are more precarious than those entrusted to their male counterparts or, to put it another way, whether many professional women aren't standing on the edge of a glass cliff.
  • The Source: Insights from Harvard Business Online on Business Week's Managing blog.
The Takeaway: The recent fall of top female execs including Erin Callan of Lehman Brothers, Zoe Cruz of Morgan Stanley, and Sallie Krawcheck of Citi have Harvard Online's Sylvia Ann Hewlett pondering a concept she first heard of back in 2005: the glass cliff.

The glass ceiling needs no explanation (though recent UK research suggests it should be renamed the concrete ceiling) but what's the glass cliff? According to Hewlett it's the idea that when women do reach the top leadership spots they "are likely to find themselves on a glass cliff--dealing with situations that are seriously risky. In short, they are set up for failure."

So is there any evidence for this glass-clidd phenomenon? Some of it is anecdotal. Just think of Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard, Kate Swan of W.H. Smith and Patricia Russo of Alcatel-Lucent, all of whom were appointed when share prices were taking a nose dive, but Helwett also points to recent research showing that women facing crises, particularly those working in science, engineering and technology related careers, are more isolated with less support from mentors and the proverbial "old boy's network."

The Question: The glass cliff: real hazard or mythic danger?

(Image of woman on a cliff by kunOme, CC 2.0)