How the “Glass Cliff” Puts Women in Leadership Roles at Risk

Rines Angel Fund
3 min readMay 6, 2024

By Natalie Pontbriand ’24 Principal

Biases are prominent in all areas of life, from academia to the professional world. Despite efforts towards mitigating these biases, individuals still face and deal with these stereotypes daily in their workplaces. These biases occur in all areas of work, from the hiring process to the CEO level, with women being one of the primary groups affected, creating workplace discrimination.

During the summer, I had the privilege of collaborating alongside Professor Jennifer Griffith, whose work at Modern Work Lab is dedicated to identifying and eliminating these workplace biases. Modern Work Lab employs modern research methods to address modern workplace problems, one being gender equity in the workplace.

This research focused on a phenomenon known as “The Glass Cliff” where women are more likely to be appointed to precarious leadership positions in poorly performing organizations, while men are more likely to be appointed to stable leadership positions in successful organizations. Also, in most cases, once the crisis passes, she gets replaced by a man. I was able to identify over 20 women in the last 20 years who faced this discrimination in many different industries as well as in political running.

A prime example of this phenomenon comes from the case of Carol Bartz. After acquiring the position of CEO at Yahoo in January 2009, Bartz embarked on a mission to steer the company back on course, after they experienced severe cuts in their expenses and positions. Bartz was not the first female CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, CEO from 2012–2017 was forced to resign, from her posting, and was listed as one of Fortune’s most disappointing leaders in 2016, before Bartz. At the time that Bartz was hired, co-founder Jerry Yang publicly stated that no matter how good she was, Yahoo could not be turned around. Upon her arrival, Yahoo was replacing multiple executives, as well as cutting costs that accounted for 675 jobs. Bartz acted as a scapegoat for Yahoo’s challenges acquiring the blame for decisions, that she had no choice but to make. After only living out 2 years and her supposed 4-year contract, Bartz was fired over the phone and joined the list alongside many other women who make it to the top to only be pushed over the glass cliff.

Another example comes from the political realm, Liz Truss, who resigned just 6 weeks after her induction in 2022, making these 44 days the shortest term a prime minister has ever served. Truss came at a time when the UK was facing economic and social instability. She took over as US Prime Minister following the resignation of Boris Johnson over ethical concerns. During her tenure, Britain was recovering from several crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Brexit, and the ongoing cost of living crisis. Although she did not follow the pattern of being the first female prime minister, she was succeeded by Rishi Sunak, a former cabinet secretary during the Johnson administration who went on to champion similar economic policies as Truss. This was despite a robust field of candidates that included women who were both seasoned leaders and untethered from the prior administration’s positions.

Overall, the Glass Cliff phenomenon serves as a reminder of the entrenched biases that hinder women’s advancement in the political, as well as the corporate world. It is important to not only identify these biases but to eliminate them. Especially in the world of start-ups, being a woman in a male-dominated field is challenging, and even more challenging when your qualifications and credibility are undermined because of your gender.

Natalie is a senior from Higganum, Connecticut pursuing a degree in Psychology with a minor in Justice Studies. She became interested in entrepreneurship after taking a class her sophomore year and hopes to achieve a career in Industrial Psychology. Aside from the fund, Natalie is a part of Chi Omega sorority, Psi Chi International Honor Society, Phi Beta Kappa and Save the Children Action Network whose goal is to work to spread awareness about the many issues affecting children across the globe by building political will and mobilizing the community. She is interested in the work of team dynamics and interested in using her Psychology skills to tie into the entrepreneurship world.



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