Crystal cliff – What is it, definition and concept

Crystal cliff is a term that refers to the practice of choosingr women to exercise leadership positions, preferably in crisis situations. This, in the corporate world, in politics, as well as in different public spheres.

In other words, the glass cliff is a phenomenon by which women have a greater probability of accessing high positions in public or private entities when faced with adversity.

The term was coined by Michele K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam, researchers at the University of Exeter, in 2004. They analyzed the companies in the FTSE 100.

Ryan and Haslam identified the existence of a tendency to appoint women as directors in companies that reported poor results in the previous months. In other words, companies were doing “badly” when they put women in charge.

The study, Ryan told Forbes, arose from an article in the British newspaper The Times where it was stated that companies with more women in management positions had a greater probability of failure.

Ryan and Haslam’s idea was to find out if what was said in The Times was true or if it was the other way around. Did women cause failure or was it the probability of failure that increased the probability of a woman exercising leadership? Ryan maintains that it is the latter.

Causes of glass cliff

The causes of the glass cliff can be diverse. Researchers point to different hypotheses, such as:

  • The stereotypes: For Ryan, it is often considered that the qualities associated with women, such as empathy or intuition, allow better coping with crisis situations. Instead, in times of “fat cows” a type of leadership more associated with stereotypically masculine traits such as strength or ambition would be sought.
  • Identity: To understand this second hypothesis, we must understand men as the predominant group (ingroup) and women as a minority or those who are outside (outgroup). Then, in times of crisis, leadership would be ceded to the non-dominant group in order to somehow attribute failure to a leader considered atypical. This is how Laura Vieten, a psychologist specialized in social psychology and author of the thesis “The glass cliff: crisis, leadership and gender (UGR, 2013)” explains it, in a recent article published in
  • Give up the dirty work: This hypothesis suggests that men are more willing to cede leadership when it does not guarantee that merits will be recognized, but rather that, on the contrary, difficult decisions must be made that may be unpopular and questioned.
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crystal cliff fallout

What consequences can glass cliffs have? The most obvious thing is that, in the face of the failure of the company or the political group, the responsibility would be attributed to women in the leadership position. When in reality the chances of failing were already high.

The cliffs then can have consequences in the professional careers of leading women. By taking responsibility for others, for example, for the bankruptcy of a company or the loss of an election.

In short, the glass cliffs function as a kind of sexist trap. Thus, they add to other difficulties that women face in the world of work. In other words, it is not enough just to overcome sticky floors (a practice by which women are limited to tasks considered feminine such as housekeeping) and glass ceilings (invisible limits to advancement in the world of work), but , once a woman reaches a high position, he could put her in a situation where she has a high chance of failing.

Still, it’s important to note that not all women in positions of power face the glass cliff. Each case is different and it is also necessary to continue investigating the causes of this phenomenon.

Example of glass cliff

There are many cited examples of glass cliffs. One that seems to meet all the characteristics explained is that of Theresa May, who was elected as British Prime Minister in 2016. This, after David Cameron resigned from that position.

May took over from Cameron at a critical moment, after the Brexit referendum. Thus, he had the challenge of achieving an exit agreement from the European Union. However, she did not make it and she was forced to resign in 2019.

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*The objective of this article is not to point in an ideological direction, but to open a debate on a topic that is under investigation and against which we believe that solid and evidence-based arguments should be raised.

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