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The Glass Cliff Effect

The glass ceiling effect, a metaphor symbolising the social barrier which keeps women from achieving their full potential, is frequently used to describe the pioneering of women through such boundaries by ‘shattering the glass ceiling.’ The glass cliff effect, which was recently developed by psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, is a twist on this metaphor whereby women are elevated to leadership roles in very precarious and risky situations.


Women placed on the ‘glass cliff’ are elevated to extremely fragile high-level positions in at-risk companies, and oftentimes the progression of careers depend on their performance. For example, Anne Mulcahy was hired as the CEO of Xerox when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2001. She successfully engineered its turnaround until 2009, and was at first succeeded by the first African American woman of Fortune 500, Ursula Burns. However, Burns was then replaced by a white man who holds the CEO position today. However, given the risk involved, the question remains: why would these women assume such unstable positions?


From a young age women are held back by a social barrier preventing them from reaching the C-Suite (a term commonly used to denote the top or chief positions in a company such as CEO, Chief Executive Officer, or CFO, Chief Financial Officer). Character traits typically associated with masculinity are attributed to successful leaders such as aggressiveness and forcefulness. The psychological effect of the bias women experience from such a young age creates a mental barrier where women struggle to find the confidence to pursue leadership roles. Sally Blount, the only woman to lead a top 10 business school at Northwestern University, found in a 2017 study that at least half of the women who earn MBAs are likely to drop out of the workforce within a decade. Concurrently, if women do pursue this career path, they are forced to conform to this biassed system, where women are taught to embrace their masculine traits to “make it in a man's world.”


As women progress in the workforce, they also face many practical challenges. Lack of sponsorship from executives and higher ups prevent women from reaching leadership positions at the C-Suite level. Women are also more likely to receive mentorship than sponsorship. This distinction is important as sponsors are actively invested in an individual's success; they give one's work to higher ups, mention sponsored parties in important meetings, promote new opportunities, and overall “open the door.” This creates a cyclical effect in which white men remain in the majority of C-Suite positions by continuously sponsoring other white men, which effectively prevents women and minorities from entering these circles.


Many women take extremely risky and precarious CEO positions because they have been conditioned by experiences of prejudice to believe that this is their greatest opportunity to advance their careers and overcome this social barrier. These women are aware of the uncertainty of these positions as well as how it could serve as a potential downfall for their career, but are often willing to take the risk for lack of better opportunities. The glass ceiling effect has become a common practice.


Despite the conditions under which female CEOs are hired, 38% of female CEOs versus 27% of male CEOs are forced out of office. For example, Carol Bartz was pushed out of office two years after being hired by Yahoo during an economic downturn, and subsequently replaced by Scott Thompson. This example demonstrates the “saviour effect" in which women are hired to save companies and are replaced by a white man once normality has been restored. The norm is that white males are CEOs of large companies, and women are only hired as CEOs in risky situations, and discarded after the return of ‘normality.’


Instead of conditioning women to adhere to patriarchal systems, it is time to change the way gender is viewed in the commercial world. Many leaders and business people have begun to question this social barrier for women and why some character traits, jobs and people are valued over others. For example, corporate leaders could support the Social Security Care Credit Giver Act, which gives women who take time off to care for their children social security. Instead of expecting women to embrace masculine traits, feminine traits can be raised to the same level as their masculine counterparts. Companies can undergo specific plans to help women at work such as unconscious bias training, hiring women and men equally and equal access to sponsorship opportunities. According to data from McKinsey and Company, there is a potential for 4.3 trillion U.S. dollars to be added to the U.S. economy by 2025 if gender parity is reached. For changes in patriarchal thinking and practices and the financial benefits to come to fruition, great efforts are required to change the system.


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