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Walking Off The Glass Cliff: Race, Gender, and Leadership

Why are men far more likely to be in positions of leadership than women are? In this post, Nathan Palmer partially answers this question using the concept of the Glass Cliff.

Person walking off cliff.

What does it mean to have social power? That’s a tricky question to answer, so maybe we could make it easier by focusing on just one particular group and just one particular type of social power. Let’s talk about men and their current strangle hold on economic social power.

Every year Fortune magazine publishes a list of the 500 publicly traded U.S. companies with the largest gross revenues. The Fortune 500, as it’s called, can serve as a good representative sample of the largest and most influential firms within the U.S. economy. The people running these companies are behind the wheel of the U.S. economy.

Of the all the CEOs in charge of the Fortune 500 companies, 95.2% are men. Despite representing 51% of the U.S. population, only 24 women (or 4.8%) of the largest revenue generating firms in the states are ran by women. That’s what social power (i.e. collective power between people of a similar social location) looks like.

But, to be fair, we should note that the proportion of Fortune 500 companies led by women is growing. In 2011, just 12 women (or 2.4% of the whole) served as CEO of one of these companies. So perhaps there is reason for a tiny bit of optimism. Expanding our focus to the Fortune 1000 (which includes the Fortune 500 in addition to the next 500 largest revenue generating U.S. publicly traded firms) only 27 women CEOs are added to the total. Which means of these 1000 highly influential economic firms, only 5.1% are led by women.

I could spend an entire semester unpacking the reasons why we see so few women CEOs. There are so many cultural and structural barriers that keep women from turning the tide of economic patriarchy (i.e. a male dominated economic system). Instead of telling you the whole story of gender inequality, I want to tell you about just one piece of the puzzle. That piece is called the Glass Cliff and it shows us how sometimes we create more inequality in the process of trying to reduce inequality.

Set Up For Failure: The Glass Cliff

As a sociologist our job is to observe the social world, identify patterns within our observations, and then use those patterns to draw conclusions. When we observe how applicants are chosen for leadership positions within society we see that when women and people of color are tapped to lead, the positions they step into have similar qualities[1].

In particular, in the relatively rare cases when women and people of color secure leadership opportunities, they are often taking the helm for a company, agency, or group that has been in decline, is currently in crisis, or is at a high risk of failing (Ashby, Ryan and Haslam 2007; Haslam and Ryan 2008; Ryan and Haslam 2005).

This observed phenomenon is what the researchers call the Glass Cliff. Let’s unpack this metaphor to learn more about it. Glass is a nearly invisible barrier. Similarly, the discrimination female applicants and applicants of color face is largely hidden in plain sight.

Research on the people charged with hiring a new leader has shown that they hold a bias against “non-traditional leaders” (aka not-white-men) and a preference for “traditional leaders” (Cook and Glass 2013). Decisions makers are more likely to give attractive and less risky opportunities to “in group members” (i.e. applicants that are the same race and gender as they are) (Powell and Butterfield 2002). The same study found that when a hiring committee is all male and all white they are less likely to hire a woman or person of color. This may be because the decisions makers want to horde the best opportunities for people like themselves or because they feel that women and people of color lack the required skills (Eagly and Karau 2002; Heilman, Block, and Martell 1995; Schein 2001).

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of The Glass Cliff

When decisions makers (who are most often white men) believe that women and people of color are inferior leaders, they are less likely to give them the reigns of a successful company, agency, or group. Which means that women and people of color are socially funneled to lead high risk or already failing firms. Then if they are unable to turn around these troubled firms, the same bigoted decision makers can say, “see I told you that white men are just better leaders.” This is what sociologists call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Glass Cliff phenomenon shows us that sometimes in the pursuit of equality we create new forms of inequality. It also shows us that often discrimination justifies itself through self-fulfilling prophecies. Systems of social discrimination are nefarious and even when social minorities make it past the barriers designed to keep them out, they still must overcome the social barriers designed to keep them down.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Go back to the question at the opening of this essay, “what is social power?” Using the evidence discussed in this essay, answer this question. That is, tell us in your own words what evidence there is that males hold economic social power.
  2. What do you think could be done to reduce the Glass Cliff effect? How could we change hiring committees or otherwise influence decision makers?
  3. Describe some of the potential stereotypes about women and people of color that could be keeping them from positions of leadership.
  4. We have to assume that of the Fortune 1000 companies, some proportion of them have to be struggling right now or in crisis. Of those struggling firms, not all of them can be run by women and people of color. So why isn’t there a cultural stereotype about white men being bad leaders? Put another way, why does a failing female CEO or CEO of color tell us something about all women and people of color, but a failing white male CEO doesn’t tell us something about all white male CEOs? What’s the difference?


  • Ashby, Julie, Michelle Ryan, and S. Alexander Haslam. 2007. “Legal Work and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Preferentially Selected to Lead Problematic Cases.” William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 13:775.
  • Eagly, Alice H. and Steven J. Karau. 2002. “Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice toward Female Leaders.” Psychological Review 109:573–98.
  • Haslam, S. Alexander and Michelle Ryan. 2008. “The Road to the Glass Cliff: Differences in the Perceived Suit- ability of Men and Women for Leadership Positions in Succeeding and Failing Organizations.” The Leadership Quarterly 19:530–46.
  • Heilman, Madeline E., Caryn J. Block, and Richard F. Martell. 1995. “Sex Stereotypes: Do they Influence Perceptions of Managers?” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 10:237–52.
  • Powell, Gary N. and D. Anthony Butterfield. 2002. “Exploring the Influence of Decision Makers’ Race and Gender on Actual Promotions to Top Management.” Personnel Psychology 55:397–428.
  • Ryan, Michelle K. and S. Alexander Haslam. 2005. “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over- Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions.” British Journal of Management 16:81–90.
  • Schein, Virginia E. 2001. “A Global Look at Psychological Barriers to Women’s Progress in Management.” Journal of Social Issues 57:675–88.


  1. It is important to note that while their are similarities between gender discrimination and racial discrimination within employment, each form of discrimination also has distinct qualities not observed in the other (Cook and Glass 2013)  ↩