Glass Ceiling, Glass Cliff and Female CXOs

Many women have been successful at breaking the glass ceiling only to find a layer of men.”

-Jane Harman, Former Congresswoman

The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers (the glass) through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them (the ceiling).

A talented woman finds it very difficult to rise in male dominated corporate world. After a certain level she starts stagnating as CXO level positions are more or less reserved for members of “boys club”.  Even if she is able to break the glass ceiling she faces another challenge- Glass Cliff.

glass ceiling

Two psychologists, Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam did a research and they found that women were often promoted to board positions after a company had started faltering. Women weren’t picked to lead companies on an upswing i.e. they were promoted to help manage turbulence and decline. If they failed to improve the situation then they were fired  and replaced by a male candidate. Michelle and Alexander called this phenomenon as glass cliff.

One more study was conducted to support evidence of glass cliff. Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe in a study asked college students to read about an organic food company, sometimes headed by a woman, sometimes by a man, sometimes growing, sometimes failing. They then asked the students to choose between two equally qualified candidates to become chief executive, a man and a woman.

glass cliff

What they found was when the company had been led by men and was doing well, 62 % of the students who read that scenario chose the male candidate. But when the male-led company was in crisis, 69 % chose the female candidate. There was no such divide when a woman led the company in the first place.

We also have empirical evidence to support this. Erin Callan was promoted as CFO of Lehman Brothers when company was already in deep trouble. Erin was a law graduate and did not have any degree in accounting/finance. Though Erin’s promotion was seen as example of how a woman can break ceiling in financial world which is dominated by males, there was not much she could do to turnaround the company, in fact there was not much anyone else could have done to save company which could not be saved.


After Lehman Brothers closed down, most of her peers joined other financial institutions, but Erin decided to take retirement and enjoy life. She got married to her boyfriend who works as fireman, and now is planning to grow her family by having children.

“I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life. “

  • Erin Callan, ex- CFO, Lehman Brothers


Experts feel that next victim of glass cliff will be Marissa Ann Mayer who is currently CEO of Yahoo! She was hired to save Yahoo, but saving Yahoo is an uphill task and Marissa inspite of her efforts is not likely to succeed.

female ceo

Not every woman falls from glass cliff; there are examples like Anne Mulcahy and her successor Ursula Burns who have managed to turnaround Xerox.


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