Pope Consulting | Glass Cliff

The Glass Cliff: Are Diverse Candidates Set Up to Fail?

The idea that women have had a difficult time moving up the corporate ladder in the workplace is old news. In 1978, Betty Lehan Harragan wrote the groundbreaking book, Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women. She said that if women wanted to get ahead in the workplace, they needed to understand football and the military – the two institutions that men love and had built companies in that image. One example described a woman talking with her manager about a decision he had made that she didn’t agree with. His response was, “I like to think that I’m the quarterback around here.” Not understanding what that statement meant in the context of their conversation, she kept arguing with him about his decision.

Fast forward to 2013 and Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead which revealed that 30 years after women made up 50 percent of college grads in the U.S., men still held the vast majority of leadership roles. Women were rarely invited to, nor rewarded for doing the same jobs as men, and were still expected to remain in more traditional roles.

The Glass Ceiling vs. Glass Cliff

The much-discussed glass ceiling has enjoyed a longstanding spotlight. It is defined by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission as “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps people of color and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”

The Glass Cliff, a newer term, is a bit different. Rather than referring to a point women and people of color can’t get past, it speaks to a pattern of placing them in leadership positions with organizations that are in trouble.

Theories attempt to determine the motivation that drives it, such as the women and/or people of color are being set up to fail, or the organization needs to demonstrate that things are going to be very different going forward. What could be more different than putting someone in charge who doesn’t look anything like the leaders who created the mess, right?  

It’s highly doubtful that any company is going to risk their standing with Wall Street just to prove that women and people of color don’t ‘have what it takes’ to lead a Fortune 500 organization. So, how are we to understand that women make up less than 6% of the CEOs in these companies and people of color in these roles peaked between 2005 and 2011, and have been steadily declining since then? When Ken Chenault retires from American Express in 2018, there will be only three (3) Black CEOs. The number of Asian and Latino CEOs has declined as well.

The Pervasiveness of Unconscious Biases

In one study of the glass cliff, college students were given two different scenarios: a very successful company that had always been led by men or by women. There were also two different articles about the company that were provided. In one, the company was doing well and growing. In the other, the company was in serious financial trouble. Students were asked to choose the next CEO – there was one male and one female candidate, and both were equally qualified. For the company that historically had male leaders and was doing well, 67% of the students selected the male candidate. For the company that was in crisis, 63% of students chose the woman as CEO.

The conclusion was that when a company is doing well, people prefer the stereotypical male traits of being competitive and decisive. The struggling company was believed to need what are perceived as stereotypical female strengths, i.e., communication skills and the ability to encourage others.

What Progress Will Look Like

We all need to learn to manage in spite of our biases – rather than as a consequence of them. When making important hiring and promotion decisions we need to develop the habit of slowing down our internal thought processes and challenging our own and other’s initial thoughts and the statements that are made. Women can be just as competitive as men — just as men can be great communicators and encouraging to others.

It’s okay to put a diverse, non-traditional candidate in the top job if you recognize you need someone very different – as long as you also recognize their talent and experience — and are willing to give them the support they will need to be successful…just as you would give any new leader that support.

We can’t manage our unconscious biases if we’re unaware of what they are. For over 40 years, the team at Pope Consulting has been teaching managers at all levels how to create an inclusive culture that allows every individual to perform to their fullest potential.

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