The Glass Cliff & Setting Women Leaders Up for Success 

Imagine yourself standing on the precipice of a cliff, having conquered a difficult hike to reach this point. The accomplishment should fill you with immense pride; however, amidst this triumph, a surge of fear, doubt, and anxiety washes over you as you contemplate the uncertain path ahead – for you stand at the very edge of a cliff. A single misstep could spell disaster, shattering the foundations of your hard-earned success. This is how some women feel when they are appointed leadership positions during times of crises in the corporate world. Little support, lack of trust, and the ever-present fear of failure intensify the pressure, making the situation even more intimidating. 

You may be familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling – a metaphor symbolizing the invisible barriers that hinder the career advancement of women and individuals from non-dominant groups in the workplace. The glass cliff is a lesser-known concept that emerged as an extension of the glass ceiling when research showed that women are more likely to be chosen to lead an organization when it is in crisis mode. The concept recognizes the disparities in gender equity in the workplace and takes these disparities a step further by highlighting this pattern where women are appointed to higher positions during difficult times, when failure is more likely. 

To break free from the performative action that results in the glass cliff, organizations must seek to adopt a genuine commitment to DEI that goes beyond surface-level and short-term representation.

Consider Theresa May’s advancement to the role of Prime Minister in the UK in 2016, which stands as a notable illustration of the glass cliff phenomenon. May’s appointment came against the backdrop of the tumultuous aftermath of the Brexit referendum, where the UK was grappling with an unprecedented landscape of uncertainty and complexity. 

Taking charge of navigating the intricacies of Brexit negotiations, May encountered the immense pressures associated with the glass cliff. Her leadership journey exemplified the pattern of women assuming challenging positions during times of difficulty. Amidst the weight of the national crisis, May faced not only the daunting task of addressing Brexit’s intricacies, but also the additional scrutiny and criticism that women leaders in high-pressure roles often face. 

May’s tenure serves as a stark reminder of the unique challenges that women and people from non-dominant groups encounter when placed in positions of leadership during moments of crisis, underlining the significance of providing genuine support and equitable opportunities for women to excel in such roles. 

So, why does this phenomenon exist? 

The external pressure to demonstrate a commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) or to react to public expectations can lead to hurried appointments of leaders from non-dominant groups. There is evidence that suggests the glass cliff phenomenon may occur as organizations strategically move away from standard leadership practices in times of crisis, appointing a non-traditional leader as a signal to stakeholders that they are undertaking change. 

This (sometimes) well-intentioned, yet ultimately weak, commitment to DEI is inherently unfair as it brings these new leaders into situations where the odds are stacked against them, and success is difficult to achieve. 

Knowing this, how can we shatter the glass cliff? 

To break free from the performative action that results in the glass cliff, organizations must seek to adopt a genuine commitment to DEI that goes beyond surface-level and short-term representation. This involves creating an environment that nurtures the talents of women and people from non-dominant groups, addresses their unique needs, and empowers them to succeed. 

Consider the following strategies: 

  • Acknowledge Its Existence: Recognizing the existence of the glass cliff is a critical first step. This acknowledgement is essential as it highlights the systemic biases and gender disparities that persist within organizations. By acknowledging the glass cliff, we can begin to address these issues and work towards creating more equitable and inclusive environments where women are afforded opportunities for success. 
  • Raise Awareness: Raise awareness of the glass cliff phenomenon among key stakeholders and disseminate this knowledge to individuals holding positions of influence. By doing so, not only do we educate and sensitize those who can effect change, but we also foster an environment where women can access leadership roles in a safe and trustworthy environment. 
  • Ensure Transparency: Being transparent in leadership appointments plays a pivotal role in addressing the glass cliff. Transparency builds trust among stakeholders, including employees, investors, and consumers. When people have confidence that leadership appointments are fair, it strengthens an organization’s reputation and relationships. In addition, a culture of transparency holds decision-makers accountable for their choices. When appointments are made with clarity and openness, those responsible for them are more likely to make careful, well-informed decisions and be answerable for them. 

At the end of the day, a mere “headcount approach” won’t suffice. Organizations must work to proactively create inclusive cultures where everyone feels empowered to contribute to their full potential, and where our women leaders can thrive and succeed.  

– By Leah Khawaja

If you and your team are interested in learning more, require support or recommendations to advance your DEI journey, please reach out to us at We are here to help!