glass cliff

[ glas-klif ]
/ ˈglæs ˈklɪf /

noun

a situation in which a woman or minority has advanced professionally at a time when adverse circumstances or crises make it more likely for the person to fail at the job: Hired to boost sagging morale, the CEO is facing the edge of a glass cliff.

Origin of glass cliff

Coined in 2004 by Michelle K. Ryan (1948– ) and S. Alexander Haslan (1962– ), British psychologists, on the model of glass ceiling
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

BEHIND THE WORD

What does glass cliff mean?

The glass cliff is a metaphor for putting women and other minorities into leadership positions during times of crisis. It suggests they are getting set up to fail, as if getting pushed over a cliff.

Where does glass cliff come from?

The term glass cliff was coined by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, psychology researchers at the University of Exeter.

In November 2003, the London Times published an article about research showing that “shares in companies with more women directors tended to underperform.”

Ryan and Haslam undertook an extensive study of the data in response to this claim and uncovered a more nuanced story: Companies tended to appoint a female to the board after months of financial losses. They termed this dynamic the glass cliff, a riff on the glass ceiling, referring to the barriers to leadership women face.

In a May 2004 article for the BBC called “Introducing…the glass cliff,” Ryan and Haslam argue that the “glass cliff is a dangerous place to be,” because it makes women targets for criticism, resulting in shorter overall tenures in leadership positions.

As Ryan and Haslam suggested and subsequent research has confirmed, the glass cliff phenomenon is not limited to the business and financial world. It’s also at play in politics, as women are often put into high office during times of crisis. Some point to Theresa May being put into power at the height of the Brexit drama in 2016.

In the early 2010s, continuing research into the glass cliff found it wasn’t limited to women. Ethnic minorities are also disproportionately put into leadership positions where they are “set up to fail.”

Not all studies confirm the glass cliff theory, but it is a widely accepted finding in the business and psychological fields.

How is glass cliff used in real life?

The expression glass cliff began in psychological research, and it remains a common point of study for business and social researchers. But, glass cliff isn’t just used in the academy.

Financial newspapers, opinion columnists, and internet feminists all use the term glass cliff to describe when women or other minorities are put in positions of power at particularly precarious times. The phrase is often used within an expression like they were pushed off the glass cliff or she was promoted off a glass cliff.

Some examples of women in leadership who faced the glass cliff are Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO, and Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packer CEO, both brought on in times of crisis, then blamed and let go when things didn’t turn around as expected.

While the glass cliff phenomenon appears anywhere that positions of leadership are available, including local school districts, the term glass cliff is most often used in business or political contexts.

More examples of glass cliff:

“Some women are able to beat the odds and step away from the glass cliff.”
—Bryce Covert, The New Republic, October, 2014

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.