The Glass Cliff

Driving on the Warburton Highway this morning I had some fellow in a big black Ford drive up my rear end, then pass at speed, revving ridiculously. Then, when he went to turn right and was stopped at the lights, as I drove past in the other lane, he swerved his car out to try to hit me, no doubt as a threat, but I did spill my coffee all over my new white shirt, which is now soaking in Napisan.

Yes, I hear you say, well it was the Warburton Highway!!! What do you expect? On the other hand, these little abuses happen multiple times on a daily basis. Lately I have been abused at a petrol stations for parking in the wrong spot. Either you learn to deal with it or . . . . what’s the alternative?

But wait, there’s more. There’s a new kid in town. It’s called the Glass Cliff. Have you heard of it? The term was coined by researchers at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom who published research on the 100 companies included in the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 Index. This is a phenomenon where women are promoted to leadership roles in difficult times, when the risk of failure is high. Think Vanessa Hudson, new CEO of Qantas and Michele Bullock, new governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Here are some fascinating outcomes ¹:

  • Promoting women gives companies someone to blame if she fails to pull the company out of its downward spiral. 

  • Companies look good when they promote women to leadership roles so even if they fail, the company still earns a reputation of being progressive.

  • If women fail, companies are free to reappoint males to their positions without reproach.

The research is ever more fascinating. Ryan, Ashby, and Haslam followed up their research with another study involving law students, which was published in an article called, “Legal Work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases.” They found that ²:

  • Male candidates were just as likely as females to be selected as lead counsel for low-risk cases 

  • There was a strong preference for females to be appointed to high-risk cases and that they were typically assigned to cases that were bound for failure

So, what to do?

Well one tip I read was to reject a promotion if your research indicates that failure is highly probable and there are warning signs imminent. Hmm. Sounds sensible.

On the other hand, here are my tips:

  • Open this topic for discussion when you can. So often we are unaware of the psychology at play. How many times have I had a women tell me in her all-male group she had difficulty getting her voice into the discussion. Really! The research is clear that women, when outnumbered in meetings, will speak 75% less. Stop thinking its ‘you’ and succumbing to the response of the average person. DO SOMETHING! 

  • As an opposite perspective to the above, I say ‘take the job’. Remain focused on your goals. Someone has to do it. Be the most incredible communicator you can be and, as they said in Ancient Rome, the aim of an incredible communicator is to be an incredible person of integrity. Keep going 

Now, I’ll get my shirt out of the Napisan and move on.




What Is Glass Cliff?


Ashby, Julie, Michelle K. Ryan, S. Alexander Haslam. “Legal Work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases.” William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, vol. 13, no 3, 2007.

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About Me

Dr Louise Mahler is a body language expert. With a focus on study of the mind-body relationship and business applications; providing practical inspiring improvement to global leaders.

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