Why the glass cliff is so dangerous for women in business

Posted by
Elena Chabo

Pressure for female representation in retail boardrooms seems to be working, but there’s a name for when women take charge of sinking ships.

When it comes to retail, women dominate on both sides of the counter: women account for 85% of retail purchases and 60% of retail employees. And yet, despite this, the majority of top jobs are held by men. 

However, that appears to be changing. This week, The Telegraph reported that of 44 retail chief appointments in 2018 almost a quarter were female.  “Over the past two years there has been increasing pressure on retailers to address this issue, and it’s gratifying to see signs of positive action,” explained Sarah Lim, managing director of search firm Korn Ferry, who conducted the research. 

If it’s disheartening that 25% is considered record representation, sorry, but there’s more bad news. Such as, for example, the fact that the timing coincides with the continuing business downturn within the retail industry.

Last April, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) recorded a 3.1% drop in sales, the sharpest decline since monitoring began 25 years ago. BRC also reported the worst footfall drop off in nine years in November, the 12th consecutive month of footfall decline. 

Are female bosses being set up to fail?

Of the notable female appointments, former Debenhams trading director Suzanne Harlow became head of Jack Wills. She’s taking over from the brand’s founder Peter Williams, who is reported to have left the business because of clashes between himself and the brand’s private equity owner Blue Gem over financial issues.

Also taking charge of a retail brand is Melinda Pararie, who came from the US to take the top job at Cath Kidston after CEO Kenny Wilson’s departure. The brand closed or relocated 11 stores in 2018 and posted a £10.5m EBITDA loss for the year to 25 March 2018, blaming cost pressures and a weakened sterling. 

This is called the glass cliff. A relation to the glass ceiling — the invisible societal barrier that keeps women from achieving the highest positions in business, politics, and organisations — the glass cliff refers to when women progress to positions of leadership in times of trouble. They reach the heights of power stepping into precarious positions where failure is likely. In other words, they’re at risk of falling, right off the cliff. (If you want to grasp the idea of the glass cliff, there’s no better example than our country’s leader through Brexit.)

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“When an organisation is in crisis, women are often seen as being able to come in and take care of a problem,” said Anna Beninger, senior director of research and corporate engagement partner at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on promoting women in business (as reported by Vox). “They’re effectively handed the mess to clean up.”

Coined by University of Exeter researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in a 2005 study, “the glass cliff” refers to the “phenomenon whereby women (and other minority groups) are more likely to occupy positions of leadership that are risky and precarious.” 

Ryan told Vox: “This can happen when share price performance is poor, when facing a scandal, or when the role involves reputational risk.”

The glass cliff phenomena leaves female figureheads accountable for wider failings

There’s a large body of data and research to support the phenomena. A study from Christy Glass and Alison Cook of Utah State University found that “women are more likely than men to be promoted to high risk leadership positions and often lack the support or authority to accomplish their strategic goals. As a result, women leaders often experience shorter tenures compared to male peers.” 

While scapegoating is definitely at play in a lot of glass cliff situations, there are also some qualities associated with women, such as being democratic and co-operative, that can make them seem more suitable to navigate tough times.

There are also factors that make women and minority leaders more likely to step up and take on undesirable roles. It may well be their only chance to move into positions of power left open by traditional candidates who pass up the role knowing there are more secure opportunities available to them. There may also be desire to prove their leadership qualities against gender or race bias by taking on seemingly insurmountable tasks. 

There are more women than ever being hired into retail boardrooms

The glass cliff is not necessarily a prediction of failure: women have come in and turned prospects around, but there’s not a lot of slack when they don’t. 

PWC’s annual 2013 CEO study from Strategy& found more women leaders were forced out of office than men — 38% of women CEOs versus 27 % of men. When a woman does fall off the cliff (or is pushed), organisations often return to white male figure heads to take the reins back. (People call it the “savior effect”.) The period of trouble is attached to the departing female and order is restored.

 “[Women] get these opportunities, and they’re amazingly talented and extraordinary women, and if something goes wrong, I’m not seeing them get pulled back into another company,” said Cook, the Utah State researcher.

Women taking positions of power should always be celebrated, and their achievements should not be diminished as simply scapegoating. Without a doubt, the retail business needs to open up to accomplished and successful women. But if the industry continues to decline, we must make sure it is not on the the heads of the women who stepped in to clean up the mess.

Images: Getty 


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Elena Chabo

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