Women in Corporations: Breaking the Glass Ceiling or Standing at the Glass Cliff?

While listening to Ava Max’s song Kings and Queens, whenever the line ‘If all of the kings had queens on their throne, we would pop champagne and raise a toast’ comes, a gush of enthusiasm runs through my veins and the thought of women leading everywhere leaves me in awe of the world that they would create. However, as I sit down to write this article today, contemplating upon the lyrics, I am left baffled by the thought of whether the problem of gender discrimination is really solved by passing of thrones or is there more to it?

Historically, men have been perceived to be natural leaders while women and other minority groups have fought for their way upwards in any organisation. Around only 8.1% of the latest fortune 500 companies are being run by women CEOs. Though it is a milestone in itself that should be celebrated, yet the numbers are not so encouraging.  This underrepresentation of women in the higher positions of an organisation is called the ‘glass ceiling effect’. But there’s more to the story. Even if a small portion of determined and strong women break the glass ceiling and demonstrate their innate talent of being a leader, they are faced with yet another patriarchal barrier – the glass cliff effect.

Recently, Blizzard Company appointed Jen Oneal as its first female lead. Though it would have been an encouraging move under normal circumstances, currently it is a testimony to the prevalence of the glass cliff effect. Why? The promotion of Jen was preceded by a big lawsuit of sexual harassment that the company is tackling. More like a sister to the glass ceiling effect, the glass cliff effect refers to the phenomenon whereby women are promoted to higher positions during a precarious situation. 

This term was coined by two researchers at the University of Exeter, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005. Haslam and Ryan looked at the 100 companies that were a part of the FTSE 100 Index listed on the London Stock Exchange to analyse what happened at those firms before and after men and women board members were brought on board. The findings suggested that during periods of stock market decline, firms that brought women on their board were more likely to have experienced constantly bad performance in the preceding five months than those who brought men.

The glass cliff effect assumes greater importance as it fuels the traditionally-existing stereotypes about women leaders. When women leaders are unable to perform under precarious situations they are dismissed as being not competent enough to hold positions of power. The effect is closely knit with the saviour effect. When women are not able to deliver results under a glass cliff appointment they are immediately replaced by men. 

However, I believe there’s more to the glass cliff effect than just research backed by statistics. I believe the roots of the glass cliff effect go to the way girls are conditioned from the beginning. Apart from painting the picture of a damsel in distress waiting to be saved by a prince in shining armour, a lot of women are conditioned to believe that they are responsible for cleaning the 'mess' that has so far been created by dominant patriarchal characters in their life. The submissive and complacent attitude that is imbibed in girls during their childhood adds up to become a phenomenon like the glass cliff effect.

Why do women choose to accept an offer of being promoted to a higher stature if they know that the company is currently in a dangerous situation? Well, women as a group have to face a lot of struggles to climb up the corporate ladder. The offer of a C-suite position is just too lucrative for a lot of women to pass on. So, instead, they take up a chance and try to fight the situation; and if we look at the flip side, there have been a lot many instances where women have vigorously fought against the glass cliff effect, pulled companies out of crisis and proved their acumen. Mary Barra, CEO and Chairman of General Motors is one such example. When she was promoted after a controversial bail-out, the odds of her succeeding were low. However, she defied all the odds and succeeded.

Though the saddening part still remains. Imagine that you’ve been trying hard to break through the glass and finally succeed. You let out a sigh of relief. However, as soon as you look around, you find yourself standing at the edge of a cliff. You are disheartened. This is what a glass cliff effect looks like. The glass cliff effect is a lesser-known fact however it impacts the lives of almost millions of women working in the corporate sector. Will women ever break out of these shackles or are there more glass barriers waiting for them?


Shiksha Mody

Currently an undergraduate student at Shri Ram College of Commerce with a keen interest in behavioural Economics. In my free time, you can either find her playing with colours or reading the latest romantic fiction.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.