The Glass Ceiling: Another Transparent Barrier to Women’s Success | Author: Nicole Ratelle


The glass ceiling has become a familiar concept in the discourse on women in leadership. First used in the early 1980’s, the term refers to the intangible barrier that prevents women (and minorities) from advancing in any given profession. With more and more women becoming CEO’s, joining boards of Fortune 500 companies, and running for political office, the glass ceiling may finally be cracking. However, the same gender bias and leadership stereotypes that support this ceiling are contributing to another transparent obstacle for women in leadership: the glass cliff.

Though briefly mentioned in reference to female CEOs like Ellen Pao formerly of Reddit and Melissa Mayer of Yahoo, the glass cliff does not receive much attention in popular conversations on gender equality. Unlike the glass ceiling, the glass cliff does not entirely prevent women from achieving leadership positions. Rather, the term refers to the fact that women are more likely to be selected for leadership positions in precarious circumstances and thus to leave organizations shortly after their appointments. Michelle Ryan and S Alexander Haslam coined the term in 2005 when looking at the economic performance of FTSE 100 companies in the UK with female board members. What they found was that women were almost exclusively appointed to board positions during times of economic downturn. Thus, women are set up to fail. More perniciously, prominent examples of females leading struggling corporations can create a perception that women, in general, are less effective leaders. As noted by Ryan and Haslam, women leaders often receive more criticism, and more recent research documents the censure female negotiators face at work—even when they behave identically to men. These criticisms gain strength from glass cliff processes. If women are put in charge of failing companies, it creates an association that seems to validate negative biases and inaccurate conceptions of female leaders.

Fortunately, research also points to ways that can prevent women from falling off the glass cliff. A study of employees at U.S. government agencies by Meghna Sabharwal of the University of Texas at Dallas showed that Senior Executive women were more likely to stay in agencies that promoted gender equality and enabled women to make critical policy decisions. Liz Dolan’s public explanation of the gender bias that forced her resignation from Quicksilver’s Board of Directors in June has similarly emphasized the importance of truly empowering women in leadership. Ultimately, the glass cliff shows that simply breaking through the glass ceiling isn’t enough. To truly achieve equality, we also need to examine organizational biases and introduce gender intelligent leadership strategies that support women in leadership.

– Nicole Ratelle

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