Glass Cliff

Glass cliff. n. (neologism) A term that describes the phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and women political election candidates, being likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest.


Etymology. The term was coined in 2004 by British professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam of University of Exeter, United Kingdom. Ryan and Haslam examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of new board members, and found that companies that appointed women to their boards were likelier than others to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months. This work eventually developed into the identification of a phenomenon known as the glass cliff. Since the term originated, its use has expanded beyond the corporate world to also encompass politics and other domains. (source.)

glass, n.

  1. A substance, in its ordinary forms transparent, lustrous, hard, and brittle, produced by fusing sand (silica) with soda or potash (or both), usually with the addition of one or more other ingredients, esp. lime, alumina, lead oxide.
  2. Applied in a wider sense to various other substances, artificial and natural, which have similar properties or analogous chemical composition.

cliff, n. 

A perpendicular or steep face of rock of considerable height. Usually implying that the strata are broken and exposed in section; an escarpment.

The Oxford English Dictionary has yet to define glass cliff. But many see the phenomenon as an extension of the glass ceiling phenomenon.

The OED defines the glass ceiling as

glass ceiling n. an unofficial or unacknowledged barrier to personal advancement, esp. of a woman or a member of an ethnic minority in employment.

  • glass cliff1984 Adweek 15 Mar. (Magazine World 1984) 39/2 Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck.
  • 1988 New Scientist 8 Oct. 62/3 Sadly, astronomers from all countries report a ‘glass ceiling’. The proportion of women is highest for the lower grades.
  • 1991 Newsweek 11 Mar. 57/1 In the Army, where three in 10 enlistees are African-American, 11 percent of the officers are black. Advances in the ranks are obstructed by ‘glass ceilings’, where networking and old-boyism still speed the advance of mediocre whites.
  • 1994 Daily Tel. 25 Aug. 25/1 After several spirited assaults, the FT-SE’s 3200 glass ceiling finally gave way yesterday, allowing the index to close sharply higher after a day of drifting.
  • 1995 Economist 7 Jan. 5/3 For most top amateurs there is a glass ceiling on the professional circuit, and it does not take them long to hit it.


Sociolectal Information.

The glass cliff examines what happens when women (and other minority groups) take on leadership roles. Extending the metaphor of the glass ceiling, ‘the glass cliff’ describes the phenomenon whereby individuals belonging to particular groups are more likely to be found in leadership positions that are associated with a greater risk of failure and criticism. (University of Exeter.)

Not everybody, though, believes that the glass cliff exists. For instance, one poster on Urban Dictionary had this to say in their definition:

The glass cliff – Believe it or not, another ridiculous term coined by women’s groups, meaning that women business owners are more likely to lose their position of power, and/or fail their business once they break through this so called ‘glass ceiling.’ Pretty much just another stupid excuse to get more governmental funding.
I’ve got a solution, why don’t you quit your whining and actually earn your way to the top instead of constantly demanding the government to do the work for you. Here’s a surprising fact: the more experienced a business owner is, the less likely the business will fail.

(source: Urban Dictionary user “MGTOW for life”. MGTOW stands for “Men/Man going their own way” a term used by someone who believes in “men’s rights.”)


Lexopinions. I first heard this term used in my Gender and Sexuality Studies class when we were discussing labor inequality. I doubt that the term will ever become mainstream though the glass ceiling has. I think the term “the glass ceiling” is more universal, it applies to many different professions as describes an experience for many women across platforms. The glass cliff, however, is more specific and describes a phenomenon specifically experienced by female executives in business. It doesn’t seem to be very useful outside of describing this phenomenon. However, it is important as part of the discussion of discrimination faced by women in the workplace. And as long as the phenomenon exists, we will need a word for it.


I asked my GSWS to describe this phenomenon…

[transcript below]

The “glass cliff” is a term that emerged in the past decade or so, primarily in the field of business.

It’s an extension of the “glass ceiling” and “glass escalator” metaphors that feminists have used to describe barriers to certain types of jobs for women and the ease in which some men are able to advance in female-dominated fields.

The “glass cliff” refers to the idea that once women are able to break through the “glass ceiling” there is still a tendency for women to face different challenges than men.

Specifically, in the business world, some studies have shown that women tend to be hired as the CEO or in some other upper-leadership capacity when a company is already struggling, which makes her job more challenging and puts her at a greater risk for failure.

Although this concept originated in discussions of women in business, it has also been used in discussions about women in politics.

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