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Leading at the top: Understanding women’s challenges above the glass ceiling

June 1, 2016 • Women in Leadership

What Is the The Glass Cliff?

While most of us are familiar with the “Glass Ceiling”, the “Glass Cliff” phenomena is less well known and/or understood.  The term was introduced by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, psychology professors at the University of Exeter. In their 2004 study, they found evidence that women are more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff’, in positions that are risky or precarious.


In this latest study, Glass & Cook  collected information on the career trajectories of 52 female Fortune 500 CEOs along with structured interviews with 12 of those CEOs. They explored the circumstances under which women are promoted to top leadership positions and the challenges they faced post appointment in an attempt to understand the factors that shape the experience of women who have risen above the glass ceiling against significant odds. They found evidence for the glass cliff and that women knowingly put themselves in these roles. Their paper considers the practical implications of the study’s findings, including what organizations can do to reduce the risk and better integrate women into top leadership roles.


Glass Cliff Promotions: The researchers found substantial empirical evidence to support the glass cliff theory in the sense that women are far more likely than men to be appointed CEO in firms that are struggling than men:

  • 42% of women CEOs were appointed to this role when the firm was struggling or in crisis compared to 22% of the men.
  • 10% of women started as CEO during a major transition for the firm while none of the men fit this criterion.
  • 44% of the women were appointed CEO when the firm was doing well compared to 70% of the men.
  • Women who accepted high-risk, potentially career-derailing appointments were encouraged by senior decision-makers. Contrary to glass cliff theory, however, women seek out high-risk assignments.

“While glass cliff theory posits that women are placed in these risky positions due to bias on behalf of decision makers, our respondents indicate that they exercised a great deal of agency in terms of seeking out such assignments……. To establish their credibility as effective leaders they actively sought out challenging and very risky “promotion-making” assignments.”

Post Appointment Experiences: When exploring the support afforded the women CEOs, the researchers found differences in the power afforded to women, as reflected in the dual appointment status. Analysis of the trajectory data revealed that female CEOs are significantly less likely than male CEOs to enjoy dual appointments as CEO and Chair of the Board:

  • 13% of women started as CEO and Chair of the Board versus 50% of the appointed men.
  • 48% of female CEOs serve as the CEO only and are not Chair of the Board versus 34% of the male CEOs.
  • 38% of women started as the CEO only and later were appointed Chair of the Board, versus 16% of men.

Interviews highlighted the bias and increased scrutiny women CEOs experienced both from above and below, as well as subtle, unconscious to overt undermining and challenging of authority and position. This included a relative lack of access to important social and professional networks, combined with significant pressure to perform.

Tenure: The median length varies substantially although the average tenure is similar. Women median length is 42 months compared to the median length for men of 60 months.

  • 32% of the women were forced to step down or fired compared with only 13% of men.
  • 23% of women retired compared to 53% of the men. Post-CEO, women are more likely to move to non-profit or charity work (18%) compared to men (none in the sample).
  • Men are also much more likely than women to continue in a corporate position (27% of former female CEOs compared to 67% of former male CEOs).

Practical Implications

Because senior leadership selection tends to be less formalized than lower level positions, the decision-making process may make female leaders more susceptible to glass cliff promotions. The researchers suggest that by applying the same standards afforded to lower level positions, the risk of appointing women to leadership positions during times of crisis may be reduced.

Drawing attention to the importance of a board’s commitment to leadership diversity as a way to bring about change at the top, Glass and Cook also advocate for aggressive efforts to increase the number of women at senior organization levels and to better integrate them.

Study Methodology

  1. Career trajectories were compiled for all 52 women who have served as Fortune 500 CEOs through 2014. This information included bios, career trajectories, education and experience, tenure in months and post CEO experience (where applicable). The status of the firm at the time of appointment was also captured (i.e. struggling/crisis; major restructuring; or solid/fine performance) as well as industry type and size.
  2. Interview data comprising transcripts of semi-structured, in-depth interviews of 12 women who currently serve in top executive positions. Interview questions were designed to explore four areas: career trajectory and promotion history; primary obstacles and challenges in their career; organizational and institutional factors that shaped their career mobility (E.g. promotions offered in firms that were in crisis or otherwise presented significant risk); and the role of boards, leadership programs, or diversity programs that hindered or facilitated their career success.
  3. Male CEO Comparison. The data were compared to a comparable set of male CEOs.

Full Article Link

Recommended Reading

  • “Are You a Likely CEO?” Strategy+business. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May. 2016. Take this quiz to assess your immediate chances of becoming a chief executive in your chosen industry, based on data collected over 16 years. Uses research on the background of incoming CEOs at the world’s largest 2,500 public companies as part of the annual Strategy& CEO Success study.
  • Women CEOs Of The S&P 500. This list from Catalyst names all the women who currently hold CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Women currently hold 23 (4.6%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. To find out how many women are at other levels of S&P 500 companies, take a look at the Women in S&P 500 Companies pyramid.

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