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Stuck between Glass Ceiling and Glass Cliff: Basics

Stuck between Glass Ceiling and Glass Cliff: Basics

Our three-part series is all about the complexities of glass ceiling and glass cliff, and the women stuck between them. In our first part we look into what glass ceilings and glass cliffs are, at some stats, what challenges they pose and how they impact women and employers.

The Notorious Glass Ceiling and Treacherous Glass Cliff

In the labyrinth of corporate corridors, women often find themselves traversing a landscape fraught with obstacles – two prominent among them being the notorious glass ceiling and its lesser-known but equally treacherous counterpart, the glass cliff. These barriers, though distinct in nature, converge to form a formidable challenge for women aspiring to break through the ranks of leadership.

The term “glass ceiling” has long been used to describe the invisible barrier that impedes women’s advancement to upper echelons of corporate power. It represents the systemic biases and discriminatory practices that prevent qualified women from ascending to top positions, relegating them to lower levels of authority despite their competence and qualifications.

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Conversely, the concept of the glass cliff illuminates a phenomenon wherein women are disproportionately placed in leadership roles during times of crisis or precarious situations. Like a cliff’s edge shrouded in translucent illusion, these positions offer the semblance of progress while perilously dangling over the precipice of failure. Women appointed to such precarious positions often face heightened scrutiny, unrealistic expectations, and limited support, making success an uphill battle.

For women navigating their careers, the prospect of confronting both the glass ceiling and the glass cliff presents a daunting reality. The path to leadership is fraught with challenges at every turn, requiring resilience, strategic navigation, and systemic change to dismantle entrenched barriers.

In this article, we dive into the intricacies of these dual challenges, exploring the implications for women’s career trajectories and the broader landscape of gender equality in the workplace. Through analysis, anecdotes, and insights, we aim to shed light on the complexities of women’s professional journeys and advocate for a more inclusive and equitable future.

Keep reading or jump directly to the section of most interest to you:

Understanding the Concepts

What is a Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is an invisible yet formidable barrier that impedes the career advancement of women and minorities, particularly in higher levels of leadership within organizations. It represents the systemic biases, discriminatory practices, and cultural norms that limit the professional opportunities available to qualified individuals based on factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics.

The glass ceiling is not simply a barrier for an individual, based on the person's inability to handle a higher-level job. Rather, it is a system-wide constraint that arises from patterns of discrimination and unequal opportunity in organizations.
Ellen Ernst Kossek
Ellen Ernst Kossek
Professor of Management
at Purdue University

The concept of the glass ceiling first gained prominence in the 1980s as women began entering the workforce in greater numbers and aspiring to leadership positions within organizations. Despite advancements in women’s rights and increased awareness of gender equality issues, women continued to face barriers to advancement, particularly in male-dominated industries and leadership roles.

Throughout history, societal norms and cultural stereotypes have reinforced the notion that certain positions and industries are more suitable for men, while others are deemed more appropriate for women. This gendered division of labor has perpetuated inequalities in hiring, promotion, and pay, contributing to the existence of the glass ceiling and limiting women’s access to top leadership positions.

The glass ceiling is a symptom of a culture and a society that still thinks women are secondary players in the business world."
Anne M. Mulcahy
Anne M. Mulcahy
Former CEO of Xerox Corporation

Despite legislative efforts such as Switzerland’s Gender Equality Act of 1995, which aims to promote gender equality in various areas including the workplace, as well as the European Union’s directives on equal treatment in employment and occupation, progress toward gender parity in leadership has been slow and uneven. The persistence of the glass ceiling underscores the need for continued advocacy, education, and systemic change to dismantle entrenched biases and create more equitable opportunities for women in the workforce.

Real-Life Example:

One notable example of the glass ceiling in action is the case of Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Despite her significant contributions to the company’s success, Sandberg has spoken openly about the challenges she faced in breaking through the glass ceiling and the persistent gender biases she encountered throughout her career.

What is a Glass Cliff?

In contrast, the glass cliff refers to the phenomenon wherein women and minorities are disproportionately appointed to leadership positions during times of crisis or instability. These positions often come with heightened scrutiny, unrealistic expectations, and limited support, increasing the likelihood of failure, and reinforcing stereotypes about the competence and leadership abilities of marginalized groups.

Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.
Marianne Cooper, Sociologist at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research
Marianne Cooper
Sociologist at Stanford University’s
Clayman Institute for Gender Research

The concept of the glass cliff emerged in the early 2000s as researchers began examining patterns of leadership appointments and performance in times of crisis or uncertainty. Studies found that women and minorities were more likely to be appointed to leadership roles during periods of organizational distress, when the risk of failure was high and the likelihood of success was uncertain.

Historically, women and minorities have faced discrimination and marginalization in the workplace, resulting in limited access to leadership opportunities and greater scrutiny when placed in positions of authority. The glass cliff phenomenon reflects the intersection of gender and racial biases, as women and minorities are often perceived as less competent or capable of leading during times of crisis, despite evidence to the contrary.

The historical context of the glass cliff is rooted in broader societal attitudes toward leadership, risk-taking, and the perceived suitability of certain individuals for leadership roles. Addressing the glass cliff requires challenging traditional notions of leadership and creating more inclusive and equitable pathways to leadership for women and minorities.

Real-Life Example:

An illustrative example of the glass cliff is the case of Ellen Pao, who was appointed as the interim CEO of Reddit during a period of turmoil and controversy within the company. Pao faced intense scrutiny and backlash during her tenure, highlighting the challenges women face when placed in leadership roles during times of crisis.

Every mistake a female CEO makes gets attributed to her gender, and for men it’s not that way.
portrait image of Barbara Annis, Gender Expert
Barbara Annis
Gender Expert

Is It Really That Bad?

In today’s corporate landscape, the challenges faced by women in advancing their careers are often met with skepticism and debate. However, a closer look reveals the pervasive nature of gender inequalities, as evidenced by staggering statistics and real-life experiences. From the elusive glass ceiling to the precarious glass cliff, women continue to navigate a labyrinth of barriers and biases in pursuit of leadership roles. As we examine the numbers and delve into the realities of women’s experiences in the workplace, the answer to the question “Is it really that bad?” seems evident: yes, it is.

Women represent only 10.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, despite making up nearly half of the labor force.

Source: Historical list of women CEOs of the Fortune lists: 1972-2023. (2023, June 22). Catalyst.

The global gender pay gap stands at 68.4% on average, with women earning less than men for equivalent work.

Source: World Economic Forum

The eighth edition of the Deloitte Global Boardroom Program’s Women in the boardroom: A global perspective finds that women hold less than one-quarter of the world’s board seats (23.3% in 2023)

Women’s relative representation in technical roles even declined between 2018 and 2022.

Source: Lean In and McKinsey & Company

Female executives are 45% more likely than their male counterparts to be targeted for dismissal during corporate downsizing.

Source: University of Exeter Business School

Women of color face composed just 13 percent of C-suite roles.

Source: Lean In and McKinsey & Company

On average, women receive only 2.3% of venture capital funding for startups.

Source: Harvard Business Review

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, comprising only 28% of the STEM workforce.

Source: Massachusetts Institue of Technology

For further insights into the challenges of the glass ceiling and the glass cliff, we recommend two impactful books. Both books offer valuable perspectives and lessons learned from women who have confronted and overcome barriers to leadership, making them essential reads for anyone interested in promoting gender equality and supporting women’s advancement in the workplace.

In “Lean In,” Sandberg shares her personal experiences and reflections on gender inequality in the workplace, offering practical advice for women striving to achieve their professional goals. (Glass Ceiling)
Check out Sheryl Sandberg’s website

Reset” provides a candid account of Pao’s journey in Silicon Valley and her efforts to challenge gender discrimination and bias, shedding light on the complexities of navigating the tech industry as a woman. (Glass Cliff)
Ellen K. Pao’s website

mock-up of book cover of "Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change"

Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talks:

The Impact on Women’s Careers

The glass ceiling and the glass cliff have profound implications for women’s careers, shaping their professional trajectories and limiting their opportunities for advancement. From stalled progression to heightened scrutiny and increased vulnerability, the impact of these barriers extends far beyond individual experiences to encompass broader patterns of inequality and discrimination.

1. Stalled Career Progression
Despite their qualifications and achievements, women face barriers to advancement to higher-level leadership positions. This stagnation in career progression not only limits women’s earning potential and professional growth but also perpetuates gender disparities in leadership and decision-making.

2. Increased Vulnerability to Failure
The glass cliff phenomenon places women in leadership roles during times of crisis or instability, exposing them to heightened scrutiny, unrealistic expectations, and limited support. Women appointed to precarious positions are at greater risk of failure, which can have lasting repercussions on their careers and professional reputations. So basically, you can say that in these situations, women are being set up to fail, not to succeed.

3. Emotional and Psychological Toll
Trying to overcome the challenges posed by glass ceilings and glass cliffs takes a toll on women’s emotional and psychological well-being. The constant struggle to break through barriers and prove their worth can lead to feelings of self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and burnout. The stress and pressure of navigating these obstacles can also impact women’s confidence, job satisfaction, and overall career fulfillment. It can also affect the feeling of other women seeing how their predecessors are set up to fail, feeling unsupported, unmotivated, afraid and losing trust in their employer.

4.  Implications for Gender Equality
The persistence of the glass ceiling and the glass cliff perpetuates gender inequalities in the workplace, reinforcing stereotypes and biases that limit women’s opportunities for advancement. It nullifies any other effort of creating a workplace that fosters diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. Addressing these barriers is essential for achieving gender equality in leadership and creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces for all employees.

5. Impact on Organizational Performance
The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions due to glass ceilings and glass cliffs not only hinders individual career progression but also has implications for organizational performance and success. Research has shown that companies with greater gender diversity in leadership positions tend to outperform their less diverse counterparts, benefiting from a wider range of perspectives, skills, and experiences. By limiting women’s opportunities for advancement, organizations may miss out on the innovative ideas, creative solutions, and diverse insights that can drive growth, profitability, and competitive advantage. And this goes all the way down to how good products and services fit the target group’s needs – and target groups are almost always diverse., especially in tech and innovation. This makes addressing barriers to women’s advancement not only a matter of fairness and equality but also a strategic imperative for companies seeking to maximize their potential and thrive in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace.

Shatter the Ceilings and Pave the Cliffs

The glass ceiling and the glass cliff represent more than just barriers to individual success – they are symptoms of deeper systemic inequalities that require collective action and commitment to overcome. By acknowledging the realities of women’s experiences in the workplace and taking concrete steps to address gender biases and structural barriers, we can create a future where all individuals have equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.

While the challenges of the glass ceiling and the glass cliff are formidable, there are proactive steps that individuals and organizations can take to support women’s advancement and ensure they are not set up to fail. In the second part of this series, we will provide tips for women to “shatter ceilings and pave cliffs” so to speak, while our third part will be all about how employers can shake things up to do their part.

Stuck between Glass Ceiling and Glass Cliff: Tips for Women

Practical strategies for women to overcome the challenges

Stuck between Glass Ceiling and Glass Cliff: Tips for Employers

Let's shift the spotlight to employers, exploring actionable steps

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