Women, Minorities, and the “Glass Cliff”
By now, most of you have heard of the “Glass Ceiling”, which is a term used for the difficulty faced by women and minorities trying to reach the top of the corporate ladder. However, the phrase “Glass Cliff” is a term more recently added to the workplace lexicon. Recent studies by Utah State University have confirmed previous studies showing a discrepancy between the quality of promotional opportunities at the highest levels of corporations. This is to mean that women and minorities have been found to be disproportionally promoted into senior leadership positions when a company is having the most difficulty.
In other words, it could appear that women and minorities have been “set up for failure” by being given the reins of an organization in free fall, just as a company reached a crisis.
Researchers also found that after a company has hit bottom and stagnated after a crisis, a “savior effect” was noticed. This was where a disproportionate number of white males were promoted to bring these failed organizations back to profitability. Fewer women and minorities were selected for these easier wins.
Biases in the Selection Process
The Glass Cliff appears to be partially created by subconscious biases of the boards. These have been backed by a series of Psychological studies done and summarized in an interesting report by Michel Ryan and A. Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter. In one example, they found that boards of directors tended to think of men when they thought of “management” but tended to think of women when they thought of “crisis”.
There has could be some disagreement about the bias. Some have argued that Women and Minorities self-selected those organizational positions atop the cliff; that they chose to accept the most difficult assignments where white males would decline a similar position when offered in the midst of a crisis.
However, that is not the case. Three independent surveys were completed comparing the selection of men and women to lead a company in crisis. In all three surveys, women were selected for leadership only when an organization was in decline. For minorities, it was shown in one study of high political office that black candidates were typically selected as an opposition candidate when there was a highly popular incumbent and the seat was considered hard-to-win. This result was also duplicated in studies within the corporate environment.
Solutions to the Glass Cliff
To find a solution, first people need to be aware that the problem exists. Fortunately, awareness of the cliff is growing. In a 2004 CNN poll, the question was asked “Does the glass cliff exist?” 72% of respondents said yes. One of the Utah researchers, Alison Cook, has said that HR representative need to be “encouraging boards of directors to top into social professional networks outside their immediate networks”. These boards should be mindful of Disparate Impact when following internal selection processes in choosing new CEOs. Consider Women and Minorities outside of your circles when your companies are improving, not only when they are in decline or in crisis-mode. The Exeter researchers concluded that the other ways to eliminate these Glass Cliffs is for firms to adopt non-token affirmative action policies and active mentoring programs to help raise the group-consciousness of this effect. Over time, it will help to dissolve the cliff and allow boards to be more fair in their selections for C-Suite positions.
What are you seeing in your organization? Is anything being done to combat the Glass Cliff?
And remember all of you Human Resources professionals: Be Human... Be a Resource... Be a Resource for Humans.
“Watch Out for the ‘Glass Cliff’” by Antonio Franquz, HR Magazine, Sept. 2013
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