Women Who Break Through The “Glass Ceiling” May Be Faced With A “Glass Cliff”

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

The Harman Firm blog often reports on cases of “glass ceiling” gender discrimination. These cases involve circumstances where women in the workplace are prevented from reaching higher-level positions due to their gender. This type of discrimination can take place anywhere; major law firms, pharmaceutical companies, and tech companies are just a few recent examples. The phenomenon is pervasive across the economy and hinders women seeking to advance their careers.

Recently, the New York Times reported on a similar obstacle facing women at the helm of both corporations and governments: the “glass cliff.” This theory was developed in the early 2000s in response to studies showing that corporations that appointed women to their boards tended to experience a drop in share price shortly thereafter.

Economic researchers sought to explain this phenomenon and discovered that organizations are more likely to select a woman to lead if the organization is facing some sort of crisis than if it is prospering. As a result, women may be more likely to inherit problems that lead to a drop in share price after their promotion.

The Times cites Theresa May, the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, as an example of the glass cliff. Ms. May took over as Prime Minister of the U.K. shortly after its citizens voted to leave the European Union, prevailing over another woman, Andrea Leadsom. The Times posits that Ms. May’s elevation could implicate the “glass cliff” theory, as the U.K. is in a very precarious position, and Ms. May’s options are limited.

Another notable example of the “glass cliff” may be Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!. Ms. Mayer has been widely derided for failing to improve the battered tech company’s standing after she assumed leadership in 2012; however, Yahoo’s underlying issues certainly predate her hire, as Ms. Mayer took over as CEO with the company already experiencing declines in both revenue and relevance.

The underlying reason for the glass cliff is not readily apparent. Studies have shown that the phenomenon exists in a wide variety of scenarios, from high school students to law students to Fortune 500 boardrooms. Whether this is because of an intentional decision to place a woman in a more difficult position due to the increased likelihood of failure, or due to some other factor, such as subconscious bias, is unclear. Only a handful of studies exist examining the glass cliff effect, and, given that real-world glass cliff examples inevitably involve a tangle of complicating factors, “glass cliff” may not join the popular lexicon in the way that the “glass ceiling” has. Nonetheless, the glass cliff is an interesting theory that addresses one of the many ways that women in the workforce can face a more challenging road than their male peers.

If you believe that you have experienced gender discrimination at work, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.